08 July 2010

Aliens vs. God

At AlterNet, Greta Christina has outlined 6 (Unlikely) Developments That Could Convince [Her] To Believe in God, with the intent to show that atheists are willing to specifiy exactly what evidence would be sufficient to change their mind - something most religious folks are loath to do.

It's a great article, and I'm behind it all the way. There is, however, one thing that I think bears more thought: How would we know any given proof of God wasn't the work of godlike aliens?

Greta Christina writes,

If I saw an unambiguous message from God, I would be persuaded of his existence. If I saw writing suddenly appear in the sky, in letters a hundred feet high, saying "I Am God, I Exist, Here Is What I Want You To Do" -- and if that writing were seen by every human being, written in whatever language they understand, comprehended in the same way by everyone who saw it -- I would be persuaded that God existed. I'd be puzzled as to why he'd waited this long -- why he'd decided to do it in 2010 and not at any other time in human history -- but I'd still believe.

She then anticipates the heckler's gibe of, "Aliens!":

(And for the record: Yes, it's possible that this could happen without God. It could hypothetically, for instance, be accomplished by a highly technologically advanced alien species. But I don't think that would be the simplest explanation. If this phenomenon happened, "God" would, in my opinion, be a simpler explanation than "aliens" -- and unless I saw good evidence that the writing was done by aliens, God would be the provisional conclusion I would come to.)

She says that she thinks God would be a simpler explanation. I'm not so sure; it seems to me that aliens are a more parsimonious explanation, seeing as how - also according to the laws of parsimony* - we assume aliens extremely likely to exist, while God is extremely unlikely to exist.

*To maintain that aliens do not exist requires the extra assumption that either there is something special about Earth in particular, or that the origin of life is so unlikely that it only occured once in the universe - a proposition that is as of yet unsupported.

Think of it like this: If a human being from ancient Egypt saw a television set, they would assume it was magic. They would not know that such technology could even exist, and the idea of magic, which is commonplace to them, would seem like a much simpler explanation.

The real problem with God being a parsimonious explanation is this, as she touches on in the article:

I'd be puzzled as to why he'd waited this long -- why he'd decided to do it in 2010 and not at any other time in human history -- but I'd still believe.

This is the crux of the issue. In order for God to be a workable theory, we'd have to explain why he only seems to exist now, and not (as is claimed by believers) since the beginning of time. What could account for the absense of evidence of God up to this point? Explaining this would, it seems to me, require a bevy of assumptions and rationalisations that may equal, if not exceed, those necessary for the "aliens" hypothesis.

It's a safe bet that any aliens visiting us will be highly advanced. It's also a pretty safe bet that they would have studied humanity long enough to know that posing as God would be a great way to conquer humans, or at the very least get some yuks.

Yes, this assumes things about the aliens' intentions, but no more or less than the rationalisations of God's intentions for revealing himself suddenly. The old line, "we can't know the mind of God" can't be resorted to - that's not the kind of reasoning we infidels like to use. =P

If I see a fat man in a red suit fly overhead in a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer, the first thing to assume as a proper sceptic isn't Santa Claus. I think the fact that concepts such as Santa Claus, or God, have been around a long time and are intuitive to people doesn't make them parsimonious at all. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The fact that they've existed for so long without confirmation makes them some of the most unlikely explanations possible.

And finally, their status as fiction is another - and devastating - hit against them. The likelihood of something someone came up with being real is as likely as me beginning to quote verbatim from a book I've never read - and that has yet to be written. In fact, the only way for these fictions (of God, Santa Claus, or anything else) to reflect reality at all is if there is some mechanism - such as revelation - that could relay the information of reality into the visions or writings of man. It can't just appear there - any more than monkeys can recreate Shakespeare by randomly beating on a typewriter for a trillion times the universe's age.

Of course, revelation can't be posited as the mechanism, because it can be shown - quite easily - to be bunk. If it wasn't, all religions would be the same (or at least agree on the basic facts). Of course, they don't - they can't even agree on the number of Gods there are.

With such good reasons to disbelieve the existence of God, seriously suggesting "aliens with the intent to deceive" isn't intellectually dishonest, or the shying away from proof of God by a dogmatic atheist. It would be the sound, sceptical, scientific thing to do.

Only when these other explanations were falsified would I accept God as the provisional explanation for such phenomenon as Greta Christina describes.

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