(First, my sincere thanks to Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne for linking to my previous post!)
After debating the subject on the Pharyngula comment threads for several days recently, I’m going to re-enter the fray (for background, see below*). I don’t think I’m necessarily adding anything beyond what I’ve already said, but this format allows me to better organize and present my thoughts.
I think the central point is getting lost. This has nothing to do with proving naturalism or dismissing scientific claims out of hand. There can’t be evidence for a god because it’s simply a fictional notion. It’s merely a product of the human imagination, like any fictional character. (We can of course to some extent trace the literary-mythical development of the Abrahamic god-idea, but it’s not necessary to do so.) I’m perplexed by the arguments that some god concepts are more amenable to evidence than others. None of them are, from the most “personalized” to the most nebulous. The crucial aspects of a definition of an entity – What is it? Of what does it consist? How does it operate? – are not answered in the case of gods, ghosts, angels or demons.
Pointing to some characteristics of a fictional character – loving, angry, jealous, large, simple, powerful – doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of developing a concept of an entity for which evidence for or against existence could be brought to bear. Of course, god-concepts, as imaginary constructions, are all completely plastic: features can be added or subtracted at will because they’re completely made up and have no referents in reality. It’s nonsensical to accept any particular complex of such features as a description worthy of science, since these types of features have nothing to do with the sort of definition necessary for empirical consideration.
Nor does it make any sense for scientists to accept that any observable phenomena would provide evidence of the existence of any fictional notion. “If a god exists, it will be purple.” “A god will bring storms and plagues for years on end.” “If a god exists, prayers to it will be answered.” “A god can raise people from the dead.” What do such claims even mean? How could they have any place in science? We can certainly measure whether there are purple things or storms or distance healing or reanimation, but this has no bearing on the existence of imaginary entities. Any phenomena, including those that appear to violate physical laws, could be attributed to some fictional entity or process, any fictional entity or process (bound only by the limitations of the human imagination). Some fictional entities already form part of the various human cultures, but this fact doesn’t make it reasonable to accept that empirical observations could provide evidence for them.
The best way I can think of to explain what I’m getting at is to suggest imagining a situation in which the notion of gods – in the specific or generic sense – didn’t exist. (This is the actual situation scientifically – these fictional inventions do not exist in the scientific sense.) All we would ever have are observable phenomena, potentially explained in any number of ways.
People keep asking about the past and present situation: “Isn’t the lack of evidence for any deities to some extent evidence that none exist?” If I agreed with this, I would have to accept the possibility that future evidence may appear. But I don’t agree. It’s a strange idea altogether. There’s no more sense in talking about evidence in relation to these imaginary notions than there is in talking about it in relation to the Ghost of Christmas Past or the Cat in the Hat or Pinocchio. There can’t be evidence or a lack of evidence for something that lacks any basic definition. To the extent that some confluence of phenomena resembled, or resembled the claimed modus operandi of, some particular concept, it would show nothing other than that some people invented a non-referential concept that happens to share (superficially, as it has to be) some features with observable reality.
I’m not agreeing with Eugenie Scott at all. This isn’t about any supposed limits of science in studying supernatural entities. These “entities” and “realms” aren’t. They’re simply inventions without even imagined referents in reality. There’s nothing there but a parade of colorful literary characters and abstract notions. Science can’t possibly consider them, has no reason to consider them, and has to dismiss them. That’s the situation. Would it be possible for someone to develop a real definition of a god entity that could plausibly be amenable to a reasoned analysis of evidence? I don’t think so. But that would be different from the situation now.
PZ Myers, “It’s like he was reading my mind”
Jerry Coyne, “Can There Be Evidence for God?”
PZ Myers, “Eight reasons you won’t persuade me to believe in a god”
Jerry Coyne, “PZ Myers on Evidence for a God”
PZ Myers, “There aren’t any zogweebles, either”
Sean Carroll, “Is Dark Matter Supernatural?”
Jerry Coyne, “Methodological Naturalism: Does It Exclude the Supernatural?”
Ophelia Benson, “For When the Agent Gets Here”
Greta Christina, “Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?”
Ophelia Benson, “Alien Epistemology”