Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Falsifiability and the God Hypothesis

I've recently enjoyed reading the online debate between the atheist writer Sam Harris and Catholic blogger Andrew Sullivan at:
At one point Harris asks Sullivan what kind of evidence he would require to abandon his belief in God; something that Sullivan doesn't subsequently address.

As a Christian myself, I thought I would give my own answer to Harris's question here by listing five scenarios, any one of which I would consider strong enough to falsify my belief in God:

1. If the Universe were shown to be eternal - however the vast majority of scientists accept the Big Bang hypothesis which says that the universe had a beginning (around 13.7 billion years ago). Many scientists (including Einstein) were originally extremely unhappy with the theory that the universe might not be eternal, yet all the evidence indeed points to it having had a beginning.

2. If the properties of our Universe were shown to be non-significant - I'm familiar with the argument that even if our universe had only a (say) 1 in a million chance of existing in the form it does, it doesn't demonstrate anything significant about our universe.

The argument goes that it is equivalent to a person throwing a ball in a field and then arguing that the blade of grass it lands on is special because it had only a 1 in a million chance of being landed upon. However our universe is peculiarly capable of complex, intelligent, self-aware life - dependent on many extremely low-probability factors - so that the correct analogy would be if the ball landed on a blade of grass which was coloured blue while all the others were green.

3. If the Universe were shown to be only one of an infinite number of 'multiverses' - So far, we have zero evidence for any universe but our own.

4. If our Universe were shown to have other complex, intelligent life forms without religion - Although decades ago the belief among scientists was widespread that our universe was teeming with intelligent life, currently we still have no evidence whatsoever for the existence of any other intelligent life in the universe. Some scientists have calculated that the probability of such life existing is in fact close to zero. Humans may well be alone in the universe.

5. If it was shown that our ideas and beliefs are exclusively the result of biological and cultural processes entirely beyond our control (and therefore their content immaterial) - or, to put it another way, if it were shown that there is no such thing ultimately as 'Truth'.

However one such well-publicised attempt - Memetics - has largely failed; its Journal ceasing publication in 2005 and many of its advocates having moved away from it.


Rehan Qayoom said...

Belief is not dependant upon scientific evidence, my friend but upon experience. I have, similarly, been debating on the Richard Dawkins Official Website Forum (which I was lured inot by a friend) The Holy Quran declares:

And it is He Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon, each gliding along smoothly in its orbit.
(The Holy Quran. Al Anbiya [The Prophets]. 43. Translated with Brief Explanatory notes by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad – Khalifatul Masih IV. The Bath Press, 1997.

Then, it says

It is not for the sun to overtake the moon nor canst the night outstrip the day. All of them spin
along in an orbit.
(The Holy Quran. Ya Sin. 41).

Moreover, it makes the astonishing claim that

And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of whatever living creatures he has spread out in both. He has the power to gather them together when He please.
(The Holy Quran. Al Shoora [The Consultation]. 30).


Remember the day when We shall roll up the heavens like therolling up of scrolls. As we began the first
creation, so shall We repeat it; a promise binding on Us; that We shall certainly fulfil.
(The Holy Quran. Al Anbiya
[The Prophets]. 105).

It also declares that God's creation is ever-expanding. And further still, it leaves us with a dire warning, the consequences of our guilty ways which we are seeing before us as what the poet Auden called the inevitable truth 'No 4-letter words can tardy'

Woe to every backbiter,slanderer.
Who amasses wealth and keeps counting it.
He thinks his wealth will make him
Nay he shall surely be cast
into the Hatoma?
And what shouldst make thee know what the Hatoma is?
Allah's kindled fire preserved as fuel.
Will suddenly leap at the hearts.
Locked against them as yet.
But blasting in extended columns.
(The Holy Quran. Al Humazah [The Scandal-monger]. 2 - 10).

George said...

Dear Daniel,

I really appreciate your attempt to "sit on the fence" and argue both sides. I think it's a very valuable personal asset to be able to do that.

I agree with Rehan, that belief is about experience, not trying to explain something logically. There are million of logical tangents that I can follow that leave no doubt that God does not exist. Do I still believe in God? Yes. Why? Because deep inside I believe, because of what I've experienced.

I have a question for you Daniel. Since every pattern for you, or color, corresponds to a number, I am wondering.. What do people look like? Do the shapes of people's bodies, the color of their skin, their facial characteristics, map to any number (or numbers) for you? If so, have you found any correspondance between those numbers, and character traits?

Many people can look at people's faces and can get an idea of the character of a person. Additionally, there is a saying "the eyes is the door to the person's soul". I was wondering if you see a correspondance between the facial characteristics, as you perceive them, and their character, or moreover, if you get a numerical glimpse of their soul?

Real spiritual people have the tendency of grasping the attention of the audience, and guide them to a path. Have you found any number difference in how they look, that will show a commonality at that level? Pushing it a bit further, what's God's number, and where else does it show up in nature in abundance?

I'd be curious to hear your feedback on this.

Thank you,


Matthew Dingemans said...

Most interesting Daniel...

This topic, especially the significance of the statistical structure of our universe, promises to be one of the most engaging subjects for future mathematical discourse.

I might briefly like to add a couple notes to your points:

1) Eternality of the universe. Besides the evidence for an expanding (and thus finite) universe, there also happen to be irreconcilable philosophical difficulties with suggesting an infinite succession of events. Essentially we could never exist in the present, because the present only arrives after an infinite succession of events (and you can never reach the end of an infinite succession, and thus not arrive at the present).

2)The "significance" you speak of in this point is called "specificity." It is not used in raw Shannonian treatment of information theory, but is used for other, more detailed forms of information theory.

For example, it is very easy to demonstrate (via permutation) that a there are huge numbers of 13 letter sequences possible using the letters in the English language - but only a very small subset of these possible permutations have specified information content (words like "biodegradable" have specified content, unlike "oemdutnghwqit".)

In our universe, of course, the characteristic of the informational specificity inherent in its structure is the ability to support intelligent life.

3)Not possible by definition of "universe."

4) This is an interesting criteria... Irreligious extraterrestrials...

5) I was not aware that memetics had lost much of its following.

Keep up the interesting posts.


Anonymous said...


I beleive that you could arguably use point #5 as the first and only point to contend with. No need to go further. That is to say "first prove that truth does not exist."

C.S. Lewis, a former athiest, wrote "Here is the door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the unverse is waiting for you. Either that's true, or it isn't. And if it isn't, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal 'sell' on record. Isn't it obviously the job of every man(that is man and not a rabbit) to try and find out which, and then devote his full energies to either serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this tremendous humbug?.... Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinate importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important."

Is Sam devoting his "full energies to trying to expose and destroy this trmendous humbug", believing that he may be in error? Does he "believe" he is "right"? Doesn't the word "believe" invoke the idea that there indeed exists something called "Truth"? The queston then becomes "What/Who are you devoted to?"

Has Sam (and/or any other athiest), not created their own religion, being so devout to proving that God and truth do not exist?

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why one would believe that any of the suggested discoveries would disconfirm the existence of God, let alone falsify it, and I comment on the first three.

1. Even if the universe were eternal, the existence of God would explain why such a complex thing has existed eternally, rather than nothing at all (because God eternally sustains it).

Furthermore, there would remain the existence of natural laws, and their fine tuning. Fundamental natural laws can in principle have no scientific explanation, explanation in terms of natural laws (otherwise they wouldn't be fundamental).

These features of the universe are plausibly explained by the existence of God because it is the simplest and most elegant explanation (a single being without any arbitrary limits on his power). Scientists prefer simple stopping-points of explanation, and God could have no cause or explanation in turn because otherwise he wouldn't be omnipotent.

2. Even if a multiverse were discovered, there would remain the puzzle of why such a complex thing existed, containing just enough universes, with just enough differences in natural laws and initial conditions, so that a fine-tuned universe turned up.

3. Finally, even if there were no fine-tuning, there would remain the evidence of the existence of the universe (whether eternal or not), natural laws and religious experience (cf. Gellman's book "Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief") to confirm the existence of God.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first anonymous poster. I don't know what are the counter arguments to this idea, but it is true that scientists believe in truths that start out as hypotheses, which are then proven through experiments. Therefore scientists are just as beholden to a structured order of things as are those who practice any type of religion. Without some structure (truth), the argument is null.

Regardless of any argument, scientists are just as important to my existence as any other person or belief system.


D.R.M. said...

Memetics does not deny "truth". Many of its proponents are external world realists.

Anonymous said...

Sylvia from NC said:
I loved reading what you had to say on this subject. Be careful though. Don’t fall into the trap of over-analyzing the facts presented to you. You will end up thinking yourself in circles and more often than not tying knots that will hold you back. There are some things that the human mind was never meant to try to grasp in the full. There are some questions that we are not meant to have all the answers to. There was one statement that I was so glad was not on your list of five. I hate it when people say, “If God exists, then why is their suffering?” Suffering is one of those topics mentioned above that human beings are not meant to understand in the full. I know though that suffering is not pointless. It brings about some positive changes. If a little boy in Africa with a fatal illness that could have been cured in an earlier stage is shown on television then his death brings hope to other children because his situation compels people to get involved in programs like Compassion, which provide schooling and essentials to needy children. When something bad happens to me or to others, I simply find relief in thinking that there is a purpose behind it all. I am satisfied to not know everything about this topic because I know that I never can know everything about it. I have heard of perfectly happy Christians who lost faith because they analyzed suffering and other issues too deeply. The only things that they accomplished were confusing themselves and developing misconceptions. I’ll admit that I have fallen into this trap before too.
I am a Christian. I have a strong belief in God, that is not based on logic, but on faith. When did I first develop this faith? Well, there was this bizarre thing that happened to me when I was eleven that I can’t explain. I had this abnormal dream. It didn’t feel like I was asleep, but it didn’t feel like I was awake either. I felt as though every sense was heightened. The setting and events of the dream are still very vivid in my mind. It wasn’t like a dream world, but it wasn’t like the real world either. Everything felt real. The events of the last half of my dream would have been frightening even if I hadn’t felt as though they were real. It was the most terrifying moment of my entire life. When I woke up the bed was literally drenched in sweat. After the shock of it all went down, I began to question what it all meant. Had my brain just been pumping chemicals like crazy, or had the events that I had witnessed meant something more significant? I talked to God about it a lot. Then one day I was reading a book that my Dad had on the past speculations about hell and limbo. I had wanted to look up some information about ancient Egyptian beliefs on the afterlife. Anyway, I randomly flipped to this section on Swedenborg and started reading. About a page into the chapter I found a paragraph that gave details about a place that Swedenborg speculates about which matched up with the place that I had seen in my dream. I just about peed in my pants. I did further research. Although there were minor differences between the place that Swedenborg described and the place in my dream, the big details and purpose of the place in question matched. I still wasn’t quite sure that it all wasn’t just one big coincidence. The human mind tries to explain away things which logically shouldn’t occur. I prayed for God to let me know if there was correlation and if there was signicance. I swear to you that 15 minutes later I was listening to a Simon and Garfunkel song that I hadn’t played before and the first half of the song was like a rough plot summary of the first half of my dream. It was totally freaky.
I've started this year's advanced placement examinations for college credit. I took the US History Test today. I got some things mixed up, so I'm not confident that I did well, but I'm hoping that I can save some money when I go to college. I'm taking two more exams next week, "Chemistry" and "Language and Composition." I have prepared extensively. Last year I took the test for Environmental Science and got a 4 which means "well qualified." I screwed up one of the essays horribly and it brought my grade down.
Sylvia's definition for each grade on the AP examination:
1: Did you walk into the wrong testing session?
2: You know something but its not enough for college credit
3: You know the general information from the course. Some colleges may give you credit.
4: You have an eye for detail. You know your stuff; you should be proud. Most colleges will give you credit.
5: Wow! Either you are a genius in this subject area or you are a fanatic.
AP exams are not designed for students to get all the questions right. There is a lot of trivia. Example: On my Chemistry exam I am likely to have a questin that asks something like, "Which of these compounds is expected to produce a bright yellow flame when burned?"
It isn't even a part of the Chemistry curriculum for a student to know that compunds containing sodium produce yellow flames, but it does help to seperate the 4's from the 5's on the exam.

Anonymous said...

I think all believers should honestly ask themselves these questions:

1. How much evidence do I need to believe in god?
2. How much evidence do I need to not believe in god?
3. Do I require less evidence for the first than for the second? If so, then something is wrong with your evidence detector.

jack said...

I have to comment on this, as I came to Christianity a full on Athiest. I always said "give me scientific proof that the bible is true and I'll believe". So one night I googled it, and found a 2 page analysis of things mentioned in the bible that are way ahead of their time (arc of the covenant being a superconductor for one).

Now, if something that advanced is mentioned in the bible, what could have given them this technology other than a higher being? Superconductors are relatively new for us, let alone 2000 years ago. And for those that argue alien influence...where have they gone? Eh? Why aren't they still influencing?

Great article as always Daniel.

Anonymous said...

Sylvia from NC:
I really want to apologize. I just came up to read what I had posted, and I was completely shocked at myself. I had been up at one-o'clock in the morning feeling sick and feverish. I never meant to talk about the dream. Heck, I don't think I've ever let that slip to anyone. I also didn't mean to leave the implication that I believed in Swedenborg's religion. I actually think he's really weird. I'm a Presbyterian, and that's far from the radical side of the scale.

Charlotte Drinkell said...

Hi Daniel,

I loved the book and it made me cry at one point. On the religion stuff, I@m not massively religious but I am quite open minded and i do feel there is something be it energy/god/life force etc. and I don't see why you can't beleive in that or God even if there were other universes or whatever. It almost seems like saying if Daniel was proven not to have written that book or only that book, he doesn't exist (in my head). I'm sure you've thought about it way more so I'll probably eat my words later!

All the best in all your endeavours and I hope to read another book of yours soon! I couldn't put it down and was annoyed to have finished it 2 days into my 5 day holiday (it was so captivating and i wanted to read more and more so couldn't pace myself and therefore had nothing left to read)! grr.

Charlotte xx

MMajor Fan said...

Your list is beautifully thought through and succinct.

Anonymous said...

Sylvia From NC:
Well, I went to the link that you provided. I read just the first two sets of responses. Once Sam and Andrew started to draw a little blood I left the site. I found myself a little disgusted at both of them (though the conversation was fascinating). Sam made the comment that religious references to loving one's fellow man are few and far between. He called looking for them "cherry picking" the Bible. I thought that the language was biting and that the statement was unjustified. I flipped through my topical Bible which seperates all scriptures into sections based on their topics. There are 19 sections which discuss love for one's neighbor. There are 55 sections (most of which are lengthy by the way) about love for one's brother (which is essentially the same as love for one's neighbor). What do you think about this?
Andrew's statements following this posting were biting as well. When he closed his blog "God bless," I almost gasped. Throughout the post he plunges little knives into Sam and then with that final closing proceeds to twist them.
I might go back and look at it again later, but right now I'm a little fed up with both of them. I wanted to hear a civilized debate (which was what it started out as) not a conversation where two people make remarks that they know will hurt each other and figuratively cause blood to fly.

Anonymous said...

Daniel (and others) -

I appreciate the "Falsifiability and God Hypothesis" debate about the five scenarios that Daniel would consider strong enough to falsify his belief in God -

BUT what scenarios would falsify your belief in Jesus (as a deity) irrespective of your proofs about God per se?

Thank you.

ah2190 said...

If you gave me the first scenario, I might be able to contradict it by saying - "Well, it could be that before the Big Bang, there was a Big Crunch - and so this universe is eternal, even though it goes through a cycle. That cycle is what God puts us through - like when He flooded the earth."
The second one could be contradicted by this - "It might be that God might had helped, but it wasn't necessary for it to be significant for Him to be around."
The third could be contradicted by this - "God made multiple universes so that at least one was to His liking."
The forth one can be contradicted by - "Well, if there are more than us out there, it could be that God made them like He made us, or it could be that He had no power over where life sprang up."
The final one can be contradicted by - "Well, if there is no Truth, then we're in a world of lies - yet there is some Truth in this world."

Therefore, it is possable to contradict those scenarios, although one of them might be proved falce if one of those scenrios was true - but the final one couldn't be true anyway.

P.S. I've just contacted you this morning on the 23rd of May.

Hugh said...

Which is more likely: God needed questions so he invented Man, or Man needed answers so he invented God?

Religion doesn't exist outside of the human mind. That should tell you all you need to know concerning the validity of God.

Barry said...


Your take on the Harris/Sullivan debate is an interesting one, but I'm left wondering why any item in this list of potential revelations about the universe would invalidate your belief in God? Why would multiverses prove the non-existence of God? Perhaps he is a pure empiricist.

These also seem very removed from questions of Christian truth. I am an atheist in the sense that I don't profess any supernatural or metaphysical belief as would be required to call myself Christian, Muslim, etc... That said, my worldview wouldn't collapse if it could be proved that an intelligence outside of this universe had some hand in the designing it. Such proof would be very far from proving that a god-man named Jesus issued forth from a divinely-fertilized womb. Thus, the standard you appear to be setting for disproving the creator does not address the validity of Christianity.

If you are using physical (thus mathematical) principles to evaluate the truth of the Christian God, is it not worth looking at the Bible itself for mathematical wisdom, and even consistency? It is interesting that this book, which has been held up as the ultimate font of wisdom for centuries, provides no new mathematical insights and even incorrectly rounds
Pi to 3.0
as well as performing other mathematical errors. I think we could expect a book that proclaims itself the very "word of God" to not only fail to make errors, but to be completely consistent with itself and even to advance our understanding of science, biology, and ethics. Instead, very many scientific and ethical advances since the rise of Christianity have been actively opposed by Christians using the Bible to justify their ignorance (see Galileo, slavery, evolution).

Thank you for your time and I look forward to any reply and/or future posts. I very much enjoyed "Brainman" and am happy to have been turned on to your blog.

Mark Nutter said...

I find it interesting that your analysis did not include a look at the fundamental question. If what men say about God is true, what real-world consequences should we be able to see as a result? Not "can we make excuses and rationalizations for why they don't show up." Any reasonably intelligent person can think up excuses and rationalizations, especially if allowed to resort to speculative and unverifiable ones. But do the expected consequences appear in the first place?

In the case of the Christian Gospel, the most obvious consequence is that, if God wants a relationship with us badly enough to die for it, then now that He's done so, He ought to show up, in real life, to participate in that relationship. Conversely, if the Gospel is not true, the most obvious consequence is that He would not show up for this personal relationship.

So the most direct test of Christianity is to ask God to show up, literally and in person, in some form that won't do you any harm, and then see if He does. If what the Gospel says is true, He *should* be able and eager to do so.

Daniel said...

Hi Mark,

Many intelligent people believe in the existence of extra-terrestial intelligent life somewhere out in the universe. They have no material evidence whatsoever, but argue that it is probable such life forms exist 'out there'.

If such extra-terrestial life exists somewhere 'out there', it would have existed and evolved over a much longer period of time than us and would likely have mastered all kinds of scientific and technological innovations. What would be a believer's response if I asked simply: 'Why hasn't such an intelligent being got in touch directly with us?'

Most people who believe in intelligent life existing 'out there' in the universe have no problem with the fact that there's no material evidence of any contact from them. They would have any number of scenarios with which to counter such a point.

I think this is a useful analogy for explaining why Christians can accept the plausibility of the Gospel and Christianity's truth claims without needing God to come down from the heavens and tell us of His existence face to face.

By the way, my original post wasn't about 'excuses' or 'rationalisations' but about answering a specific point raised by a prominent atheist. You state that my points are 'unverifiable' whereas the whole reason for this particular formulation is to give criteria which are eminently scientifically verifiable, at least in theory.

lea said...

Beaucoup de scientifiques pensent que l'univers n'a pu être créé "par hasard".

Dan said...

Thanks for casting some light on how some Christians can come to these sort of conclusions, its good to have some friendly dialogue on these topics.

Im having a bit of trouble with your analogy though. I think belief and hypothesis are two different things. Belief to me always implies a degree of certainty, perhaps even complete certainty.

I dont know of any people that 'believe' in extra terrestrial life (im sure they exist as you say though). Aliens are a hypothesis based on physical evidence (ie, our very existence makes it at least possible there may be similar goings on 'out there').

However, I think if you pressed any honest 'ET believer' hard enough they would have to admit they just don't know. No matter how likely they might think it, they would have to concede they know nothing of these hypothesized creatures; their shape, size, texture, physical construction, communication methods, grasp of technology, etc... It would all boil down to speculation on a concept and nothing to do with entities that actually exist. The range of differening conceptions of God (even with the same sub-branch of a particular religion) seem to point towards this same sort of speculating on an idea rather than actually connecting with something 'real' (a topic of debate in itsef i guess)

What interests me is how the religious believer takes the next step (from hypothesis to some certainty of belief), what are your thoughts on this?

have a nice day
PS. Does the idea of god have a number association in your mind?

Fred Roque said...

Love the points of view from all three sides.

Personally, I believe that once the belief in religion is set in your mind, that it is difficult to change. There is no arguing over it... since this subject is one of the most abstact subjects, and currently cannot be proved/dis-proved.

That being said, I am an Agnostic. I am always in search of truth, or more importantly-the God Truth. Just like everyone here, I have read countless pages on religion/anti-religion.

Isaac Asimov once mentioned that "Bible represented Hebrew mythology in the same way that the Iliad recorded Greek mythology."

The bible was writen by different authors and corespond together without any discrepancies-the argument that often validates the bible as true.

We should not be looking for "Falsifiability" but rather go deeper into understanding if we can observe such truths to God.

I for one would love to see a miracle (regardless of how scary it would be). I'm always on the lookout for absolute proof... parting of the sea, angels, etc. The vague explanations of why things don't happen according to the bible is just too vague for Agnostics.

Final say (sorry to ramble). About space/time... you have to realize that if god exist (hopefully this statement will not offend anyone), that he exist outside the laws created within this 'Universe'. Time is just another unit of measurement.

-Fred Roque

Kjersten Cregger said...

Huh, all of the other comments are exorbitantly long. I feel silly =] I would simply like to know: why Christianity? If you've opted to believe in God until His existence is disproved, why then have you chosen the Christian God?

Also, on a side note, in response to Hugh's comment: perhaps nothing exists outside the human mind, as Descartes once philosophised. In that case, God could be as real as the ground you and I walk on.

DanoJohns said...

Hello Daniel,

I think many of your arguments are well-thought-out, not just on this topic, but many others. However, I find some problems within this argument.

First, as others have pointed out, your five catalysts for disbelief do not follow logically to disbelief. I'll not elaborate more because others have.

Two other points,though: First, you properly used the word, "falsifiable" in your original post, but later on suggest that your criteria are "eminently scientifically verifiable...." As a scientist, I must take issue. Nothing is scientifically verifiable. Science can only lend support to a hypothesis, or fail to do so. As scientists, we might replicate an experiment's results a thousand times (following which, we would all agree to the "truth" or "factualness" of the results, based upon additional support). But the very next day, we might get opposite results, and they might be verified thousands of times. What, then, do we make of our original "fact?" There is no such thing as "an exception to the rule," only potential evidence that there IS NO RULE.

Second, you claim that a belief in alien life is analogous to a belief in God. In response to the blogger that suggested God should reveal himself and engage in his relationship with humanity, you say that aliens could do the same, if they exist. As part of your argument you say that they are "more advanced" than we are. Why in the world would they necessarily be more advanced than we are? Many prominent physicists (most especially, Carl Sagan, who said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence") have said that it is unreasonable to assume that we are alone in the universe. There are hundreds of billions of stars in each galaxy, and billions upon billions of known galaxies--just imagine (perhaps as you alone can do, with your amazing abilities) how many trillions of planets must orbit all of those stars. If the chances of life forming and developing into intelligent beings were a staggering 50 trillion to one, there would still be many, many intelligent life forms in the universe besides us. But why would they be more advanced than we are, or why would being more advanced allow them to contact us? It is widely believed that we will never be able to approach the speed of light with space travel. Our only hope of even visiting the nearest star within our own galaxy is to find a "wormhole" or develop a technology to warp space/time. Many more advanced beings might exist that have not yet determined how to do these things. The only logical argument that CAN be made is that IF alien life shows up here any time soon, they WILL be more advanced than we are.

Daniel said...

Hi Danojohns,

The 5 points I make would satisfy myself of the non-existence of God. I do not claim them to be definitive; they are most definitely subjective. But I also hope they demonstrate that my faith is not entirely 'blind' and without thought.

Saying that prominent anyone says anything is equivalent to an 'argument from authority' and fallacious (it's something religious people are often - rightly on occasion - accused of).

The fact is we don't know what the odds of life existing in our universe are - so there's no value whatsoever in saying that alien life is probable or improbable. The best we can say is that there is zero material evidence for the existence of alien life, and that any belief in them is a matter of faith. This is why I say that it is analogous to belief in God.

Danojohns said...


"Appeals to authority" are potentially fallacious only insofar as they are founded upon the opinions of "experts" speaking outside their own fields of expertise (e.g., Olympic athletes extolling the virtues of a particular granola bar as health-inducing). Philosophically, this represents an ideological (and, thus, potentially fallacious) use of the hierarchy of authority to sway an audience.

However, within science, authority is achieved via consensus; I should not have used the word "prominent," but "well-respected" in my discussion of life in the universe, because when someone is considered well-respected in his/her field, there is implied the notion that he/she has achieved consensus with colleagues, or that his/her ideas largely have yet to be falsified. Facts, in science, at least, are simply a matter of consensus (and I recognize that you know the difference between fact and truth).

You say that such statements as "the chances are quite high that life exists elsewhere in the universe" lack value(by which, I assume you mean they are worthless) because we do not know that there is life elsewhere. I suppose that one could accept your argument if you were to apply it to everything about which we might speak. But, Daniel, you risk an irreducibility problem here: how can you truly "know" anything? For example, why do you write in this blog? Is it because you "know" that other humans can read and understand your words? How would you know? You might say, "according to all my experience, chances are that most people who come to my blogsite can read and understand my language," but in saying this you are simply applying a probability to a possible future event (one that you have yet to see empirically, and therefore cannot know the inevitability of). In the case of your blog-writing, you are acting upon your own authority as a "knower" of the probability of communication success. How is that not equally fallacious logic as relying on scientists as authorities on probability with regard to alien life in the universe, in your mind? If this argument is persuasive to you, how is your blog, then, not equally "[lacking in] value?" If it is not persuasive, why not? In case it isn't obvious, I do not find your blog valueless.

Lastly, to whatever extent objective empiricism is seen as possible, it does represent the best way of "knowing" anything. From this perspective, there is a continuum of rationality (the quality of being logically consistent) in knowledge, from the most rational way of knowing (empirical evidence) to the least rational way of knowing (faith). While this does not mean that all acts of faith will result in disappointment for the believer, it does mean that fewer acts based on empirical knowledge will. With all due respect, analogizing scientifically determined probabilities with faith-based probabilities is simply irrational.

Thanks for the lively debate, Daniel!

Daniel said...

Hi Danojohns,

No I don't say that talking about the probability of intelligent extra-terrestial life existing is valueless because we don't know there is life elsewhere in the universe.

What I say is that we have no way of calculating the odds of such life existing. Saying that the universe is so vast that there has to be other life somewhere out there is no argument at all.

Andrew said...


You seem to be missing the point, to be considered a valid scientific theory it must not only be falsifiable, but also clearly defined and testable. Sure, you cannot disprove God, but neither can you disprove Hermes. Even if all the tests were false it would not verify God. Even if it were somehow proven the universe was designed, that does not show it was by a God, it could be a spin off of a physics experiment in another universe, or even simulated. The main point is that the scientific approach is to be agnostic, not atheist about matters such as God (and there are an infinite number of such nebulous concepts), or even less-nebulous ones such as extra-terrestrials until concrete evidence is found. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Cher Daniel,
Je viens de lire votre livre.
Je l'ai trouvé très interessant.Bravo!
La fille d'une amie est "Aspi", c'est la raison pour laquelle je suis interessée.
Pour ce qui est de la question sur l'existence de Dieu, la seule chose que je sache, c'est que je ne sais pas.
Donc, oui! je crois en Dieu mais toujours dans l'incertitude et j'imagine que peut-être pour vous l'incertitude c'est ce qu'il y a de pire.
Mais en fait mon incertitude se traduit aussi par des questions.
Comme vous le faites sur ce blog.

Hélas, je ne comprend pas tout ce qui est écrit car mon niveau d'anglais n'est pas très bon.

Je vous souhaite un bon cheminement."L'important n'est pas le but mais le chemin" disent certaines personnes.
Vos questions forment un chemin le long duquel vous marchez ( vous cheminez).
Alors bonne promenade!

Anonymous said...

hey daniel,

just wanted to post a quick comment about ET's, some additional speculation. it's not for the purpose of challenging your beliefs.

you say that extraterrestrial life 'would have existed and evolved over a much longer period of time than us and would likely have mastered all kinds of scientific and technological innovations.'

i would just like to throw out another possibility. what if life is a 'phase change' of the universe, much as water turns to ice? what if life arises only after a period of time has passed? what if the universe is engaged in a process of complexification, and what if certain phase shifts only occur after some universal preconditions have been met?

i recognize that there's no evidence of extraterrestrial life. the fermi paradox is worth thinking about, and i tend to believe that intelligent life might be vanishingly rare. or that we could, conceivably, be it.

but i do not see a reason for supposing that ET life must be more advanced than we are. i tend to look at it this way: the universe arose (insert god here, if you wish). hydrogen emerged. stars formed. stars created heavier elements. heavier elements dispersed via supernova seedcasting. it took time for the universe to create the building blocks we see around us today, and then to spread them. while it was doing that, life as we know it was, presumably, not possible. certain things needed to be in place. the stage needed to be set before complexity of the kind we're interested in could emerge.

it's just something to think about. i tend to think that, as intelligent creatures, we're alone (or nearly alone) but that life itself (microbial) may be common.

i found the book 'rare earth: why complex life is uncommon in the universe' (by peter ward and donald brownlee) to be a real eye-opener. it's a book that can give solace to believers and, as well, to atheists of a certain stripe.

of course, another useful science book for believers would be martin rees' 'just six numbers.'

i tend to lean toward atheism, but i am aware of the uncrackable riddle at the heart of reality, too.

Anonymous said...

Well the one argument I have against believing in God is that if God exists--He wouldn't make the world such that only a person such as Daniel or any one else here who has commented would be able to understand. In other words, the idiot and the genius should be equal in arriving to that same conclusion of recognizing God.

However, stats do show that most people do believe in God (especially around X-mas time) and if you were to put an atheist to the test you would conclude that they are:

a) fanatics who hate on ALL religions
b) actually DO believe in God, but too confused to realize it, so really an agnostic
c) a blind follower of the scientific religious phenomenon--and if you want to know what that means, than observe how atheists regard anything scientific with a holy splendor to it.

But Daniel--you will have to justify Christianity to us all---why do you follow Christianity? Or rather--have you learned about other religions and decide on one?

Beulahboy1 said...

Hi Daniel,

I finished your book yesterday and decided to do some research online, which led me here and to the "Brainman" documentary on YouTube.
First, I have to say how surprised I was at how articulate and responsive you are. Given the way you described yourself in the book, I truly expected someone more rigid, unresponsive, and zombie-like. I think that even more than your intellectual abilities, your ability to reach out and understand and connect with other human beings was really what touched me. You described your struggle with connecting emotionally to people and developing and nurturing relationships, things with which I think we all struggle, and your perseverance and thoughtfulness in those areas are more profound than even your mental capabilities are. You truly are an amazing person with such a capacity for love.

I watched your appearance on David Letteran as well and it just confirmed my assessment. You appeared so relaxed and comfortable with yourself and your environment and I felt so happy that so much good has come your way.

I do have one question, and I am only asking because it is something that I have never been able to come to terms with. How do you reconcile your Christian beliefs and your homosexuality? said...

Thanks for casting some light on how some Christians can come to these sort of conclusions, its good to have some friendly dialogue on these topics.

Anonymous said...

Cher Daniel.
Nous venons de lire votre livre "Je suis né un jour bleu" en Français. Nous avons été très touchés par vos explications sur ce que vous pouviez ressentir. Notre façon de voir les choses sera maintenant différente et participera à nous rendre meilleurs. Nous rendons hommage à la bienveillance et la patience de vos Parents.
Nous vous souhaitons beaucoup de bonheur dans cette vie que vous vivez différemment.
Sylvie et Jean-Jacques.

Anonymous said...

I have had similar discussions as the one you have described, right down to Tammet's observation about the "multiverse" (or "omniverse" as some call it).

Not only should the theist be able to list examples of evidence which would counter the belief in God, but atheists too should be able to provide examples of evidence which would make them change their mind. It doesn't have to be something as obvious as "angels coming from the sky" ... use your imagination.

Bubba said...

Interesting comments on each persons personal beliefs. It is a hypothesis of Carl Jung and many other psychologists and philosophers that we all live within our own bubble of reality and that life is a projection. Jung would say that this is based basically on the idea of the collective unconscious. The person who suggests an agnostic approach is I think closest to an actual answer to the question of a higher power. None of us actually knows this answer, it is unprovable to exist or not exist. I think though that it is important to support peoples personal belief systems. If you believe in a higher power and it affects your life and your interactions with others, it does exist to you, and if there is no life after death you will know none the better. The book The Answer To Job by Carl Jung is an excellent comment on this subject, and so is Erich Neumann's Art and the Creative Unconscious. When you look at myth in general there are a lot of recurring themes, whether it is a major religion or a children's story. They all mirror the human condition in thought, creativity, and the dichotomy of good and evil, and hero's to just name a few similarity's.

Lorcán said...

Just stumbled across this blog,and thought I'd leave a comment.
If God did not exist, would religions still exist? I would say yes, because before evolution was understood, the complexity of nature would always have suggested a designer. What would these religions be like? Well, due to cultural separation there would probably be a number of different religions, all sharing the idea of a creator. If God did exist I would expect there to be only one religion. The fact that there are so many religions with different beliefs proves that we have a natural tendency to believe in something, whether true or not. If there is only one truth then most believers in the world are believing in untruths. So take any individual believer. It is more probable that what they believe in is untrue than true.

Yulius Halim said...

Hi Daniel,
It's great to know that one of the foremost extraordinary minds like yourself is a fellow Christian, really helps to confirm that religious believers believe not because they have a lack of brain capacity. I'd also like to say that I agree with some of your points that, if fulfilled, would be enough to make me not believe. but others, I personally feel that they cannot sufficiently make me a non believer:

1) Agree
2) I agree that the possibility of life emerging from lifeless molecules to be extremely small or even non-existent. So far what science speculated is that life can be created from lifeless things, and many hypotheses have been developed on how it might have occurred. But before it can be proven that life can be created that way, I'm gonna think that it is just wishful thinking on the scientists' part.However, even if life can be created from non-life particles, that doesn't disprove God, afterall, according to the bible, we were created from non-life particles (dust) as well. Still it is extremely unlikely that life can come out of lifeless molecules by chance.
3) This won't shake my faith, if God really created other universes, it really is none of our business. I don't think God said that ours is the only universe ever, I believe that everything we see, know and not yet know is like a gigantic explorable playground for humankind from God. He doesn't want us to be bored with the same old stuff. Maybe He made other universes so that we can explore them some day.
4) I don't believe that aliens exist but if they do, I wouldn't be surprised for precisely the same reason I stated in the point above. But if they look like us human beings, then they would be like the Image of God too, that would make me disbelieve because God said we are made in His Image and He even sent His Son to die on earth for us and if there are others in the universe that look like us, it just makes the bible seem like fantasy and a mere earthly story.
5) Agree, minus the words "and cultural".

I know I'm about 5 years too late in writing this but I hope people still come to read this thread. A real honor to be able to write on your blog Daniel. I'm a big fan of yours since I watched brainman!