A Guide to God-Spotting

Some of my favorite atheist writers have been jousting over the issue of whether any imaginable evidence could convince them of the existence of God. Among those who answer in the negative, the consensus seems to be that God is such a nebulous and unfalsifiable hypothesis, it’s impossible to test in any meaningful way.

This is a topic I’ve spent some time contemplating myself, and though I think differently than they do, I’m sympathetic to that objection. Despite millennia of cogitation, theologians have never produced a clear and consistent definition of God’s nature and powers.

So, let’s see if we can help them out.

In this essay, I’ll list three different classes of hypothetical beings that could claim the term “god” and consider how each of them differ. I’ll then discuss what we might do if we ever encountered a being that could plausibly claim to belong to one of these categories.

God Type I: The Sufficiently Advanced Alien

The first candidate, and the lowest on the scale of godhood, is the Sufficiently Advanced Alien. This could be an extraterrestrial from a civilization technologically advanced far beyond ours, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a human-created Singularity-type computer supermind, a time traveler from the far future, a Star Trek-esque energy being, whatever. Its exact nature isn’t important. What matters is that it exists in this universe and is constrained by its physical laws, but can do anything or almost anything that’s theoretically possible under those laws. I could imagine a sufficiently advanced alien that could use sophisticated nanotechnology to cure disease, read our thoughts by mapping patterns of brain activity, control the weather in a small region to strike blasphemers with lightning, and so on, thus acting for all intents and purposes like the gods of old.

I would also count pagan deities like the Greek gods under this category. They were superior to humans in some ways, such as possessing immortality, but they were creatures of this universe and were in some sense subject to its laws.

God Type II: The Chief Programmer

Moving up a step, we come to the Chief Programmer. The conceit here is that there’s another universe, which arises and evolves according to its own set of natural laws (whatever they may be), ultimately giving rise to intelligent life. That life becomes technologically advanced and builds powerful computers, or the equivalent – so powerful that they can simulate, in arbitrarily fine detail, the workings of an entire cosmos – and we are that cosmos. The true nature of our existence is that we’re programs running on a supercomputer operated by a far more advanced civilization, and the simulation is so realistic that we’re unaware of this.

The programmer in charge of the simulation, if it chose to interact with us, would be godlike. It could infallibly predict the future by rewinding time and then replaying it; resurrect the dead by loading their personality from a backup copy; run our universe in a debugger to read people’s thoughts, influence their actions, or alter the course of events in subtle and undetectable ways. It could change the parameters of the program to selectively suspend our natural laws – creating a perpetual motion machine, making force equal something other than mass times acceleration, changing the value of Planck’s constant, or removing the light-speed limit. Any form it could take in our universe would only be an avatar, and even if we disabled or destroyed that, the mind guiding it isn’t part of our universe and wouldn’t be affected.

This is the Chief Programmer: any being that’s a natural entity in its own universe, but functionally omnipotent with respect to ours. The scientists in Stanislaw Lem’s “Non Serviam” were Chief Programmers from the perspective of their artificial beings, as is the protagonist of this xkcd strip. But it doesn’t have to be a computer programmer, per se. We could be figments of the imagination of some superbeing, dreaming a fantastically vast and intricate lucid dream, or characters in a novel being written by an unimaginable Author.

God Type III: The Empyrean

Finally, there’s the category about which there’s the most controversy, a god of the type usually pictured by monotheistic religions. Like the Chief Programmer, it’s fundamentally omnipotent and omniscient from our perspective – able to alter reality at will, powerful enough to achieve anything that isn’t a logical contradiction, and aware of everything that can be known. The difference is that, rather than being a natural being in its own universe, it isn’t subject to any physical laws whatsoever, although it may exhibit regularities in its behavior. What it’s made of, or whether it has any internal structure, are questions which theologians rarely consider.

As I said, there’s much debate about whether this is even a logically coherent notion, or whether it’s so poorly defined as to be a self-contradiction. The point is well-taken that gods like this are usually only defined in negative terms. Saying a being is “immaterial” or “ineffable” doesn’t explain what it is, only what it isn’t. Saying it transcends time and space doesn’t explain in what manner it does exist, cogitate, and act. Saying it consists of “pure spirit” is a meaningless string of words when we have no other examples of this substance to examine. Most attempts to define a type III god, ultimately, consist of mysteries piled upon mysteries, all topped with a generous helping of contradiction and paradox.

So, yes, I can accept the point that the type III god is so ill-defined that we could never be sure whether we’d encountered one, or whether any plausible god-claimant was “only” an example of a type I or II.* But here’s the important thing: as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t make a difference. We could never threaten or oppose either a type II or III.** If it demanded worship, and your paramount desire was not being blasted into oblivion, you’d have no choice but to obey. Conversely, if you refused on principle to worship any being that hadn’t proved itself morally worthy, it wouldn’t matter what the source of its power was.

From a practical perspective, then, the type I, II and III beings would all be gods to us. If such a being manifested before us and directly communicated with us, logically our response should be the same in all cases. Of course, that would only be a concern for a plausible manifestation. The vague, subjective internal promptings claimed by most religions could never qualify, nor could the many-times-retold tall tales in scripture. It would need to be something clear, direct, and unmistakable, and if experience is any guide, that’s a standard that no religion is likely ever to meet.

* There are differences between the various types. There are certain feats that a type II or III god could perform that a type I couldn’t, for example changing a law of physics. But a type I god could probably craft an illusion realistic enough that we’d never be able to see through it.

** In theory, we could become powerful enough to overthrow a type I, but it’s also possible that it would keep a sufficiently close watch on us to make this a practical impossibility. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is an example of this.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Chris

    Wow—so the Type II God is a Gamer?

    That would explain an awful lot.

    Yahweh, Allah, Satan, the Great Spirit, all getting together at Yahweh’s house to play video games—with us as the characters.

  • Sarah Braasch

    You should read Brian Greene’s latest book, The Hidden Reality, which is brilliant.

    It’s about the different hypotheses regarding parallel universes, including the idea that we are living in a simulation or hologram.

    I’m a big fan of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics myself.

  • http://patientandpersistant.blogspot.com/ Paul Baird

    I’ve been thinking about this issue too and my problem is that, as A C Grayling explained, it’s not simply in the performance of providing evidence that there are issues, but also in the observation of that performance.

    How would we respond to a Monty Python sized giant hand suddenly appearing in the sky pointing down toward us ? Belive in God or make a hospital appointment citing severe hallucinations and/or delusions and volunteering for electric shock therapy.

    I’d find the latter very appealing over the former because it makes more sense.

    Can you imagine how you would react if you really met Mork from Ork ?

  • Stephen P

    How would we respond to a Monty Python sized giant hand suddenly appearing in the sky pointing down toward us ?

    I’d probably react by never again going outside without a camera in my hand.

  • Rieux

    I think you stopped short of the core question you started with: taking as given the ambiguity regarding the Type I, II, and III concepts, could any imaginable evidence could convince you of the existence of God?

  • Nathan

    Rieux asked:

    could any imaginable evidence could convince you of the existence of God?

    Yes. I ask for one specific miracle: Make me believe in God. I would find such a miracle completely convincing.

    Alternately, I can imagine that there is evidence I would find compelling, regardless of whether I can imagine such evidence.

  • L.Long

    Type I g0d – doesn’t count, it may be advanced or gifted but it is of this universe so given time we could kick its butt. An ORI, a g0d does not make!
    Type II g0d – is silly as that means ‘we’ do not exist except as a ‘TRON’ type construct so who cares.
    Type IIIa g0d makes a trans-dimensional universe which make S/He/IT irrelevant as we are here and S/He/IT is there. If S/He/IT can come over to here making a
    TypeIIIB g0d means some part of it is here and is in some fashion constrained by our laws so in some fashion and with time we can find a way to kick its butt.
    In any case there is no evidence of either type so it is still irrelevant.

  • Mrnaglfar

    How would we respond to a Monty Python sized giant hand suddenly appearing in the sky pointing down toward us ? Belive in God or make a hospital appointment citing severe hallucinations and/or delusions and volunteering for electric shock therapy.

    I’d find the latter very appealing over the former because it makes more sense.

    While I can be sympathetic to the people who claim that most evidence people count towards a god could be the result of a delusion, and thus claim they can never be convinced (probably because I agree that there are plenty of cases of delusion), I can’t think of a single argument the delusion hypothesis couldn’t apply to.

    For example: if I said that I could never be convinced there was a car in my driveway, even if I saw one there, because it could just be the result of delusion I don’t see that argument making more sense, whether applied to a car than a deity.

    I would also add I have some degree of sympathy for the “we can’t define god consistently” argument, because it’s annoying as hell that just about everyone who believes in a god holds a different view of what that god is. I just don’t find it to be a very good argument. Just because people have different views of what the minimum (necessary and sufficient) definition for a god is, it doesn’t mean that we couldn’t find evidence consistent or not consistent with any given definition.

    The simplest argument is just “we don’t have evidence for god X, even if we have evidence that could be consistent with X“, or “What evidence do you have that led you to your conclusion?” Of course, evidence “consistent with” a given hypothesis does not equal “evidence that proves” a given hypothesis, and that would probably need to be pointed out a few dozen times with specific examples.

  • Doug Reardon

    I seem to recall a star trek tng episode that addressed god type 1.

  • secular0ne

    The problem isn’t if there is a God or not.

    The problem is and always will be those who claim to know what their god wants and desires them to do and they also demand we follow their idea of what a god wants also, under penalty of death or imprisonment.

    If Christians or Muslims or Jews keep their superstitious religion to themselves there would be no problem but they refuse to keep their superstitious religion to themselves and instead demand everyone believe their opinion of a god, real or not!

    I don’t give a shit if there is or isn’t a god. I’m pissed that people who can’t figure out how a doorbell works wants to tell me what a God thinks!!

  • Snoof

    I seem to recall a star trek tng episode that addressed god type 1.

    “a” Star Trek episode? That plot has come up almost as often as the negative space wedgie one. Including in Star Trek V (“What does God need with a starship?”)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I think you stopped short of the core question you started with: taking as given the ambiguity regarding the Type I, II, and III concepts, could any imaginable evidence could convince you of the existence of God?

    Certainly, Rieux. That question is the reason I wrote the Theist’s Guide, linked in the second paragraph of my post, where I answer it in detail.

    My point in writing this post was to clarify that even that evidence, although it would certainly persuade me to believe in a god, couldn’t really tell us whether it was a type I, II or III being. However, I think that if we ever came to that point, that issue would be of only academic interest and wouldn’t make a practical difference to how we should respond.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    I can understand the reluctance of many to fight against the typical absolutes of omniscience and omnipotence, as well as the tendency for gods to go hiding in the Undefined Realm whenever anyone is supposed to be looking. I also consider long discussions about definitions and inconsistencies to be largely pointless.

    But I think that being able to answer a challenge about evidence has its merits. Theists play both sides of a particular fence all too often, in treating their beliefs as a personal thing whenever challenged, but an absolute or “truth” matter when it comes to providing them with some authority. When atheists are clear about the weight of evidence and its impacts on people in general, we’re moving the argument away from emotional appeals and into demonstrable affects. In other words, in order to have the authority of a deity, you better to be able to demonstrate that you’re a deity. It’s not a matter of philosophy, nor wishful thinking; it’s a matter of solid accomplishment.

    Such an opportunity is rare – usually, no one bothers to ask what atheists think, because they’re quite assured they already know. If/when we get this rare opportunity, I think it’s counter-productive to avoid addressing the viewpoint about hard evidence and rational support for beliefs/actions. Anyone that claims to have no answer because of badly-defined absolute concepts like omnipotence is only going to be heard to say, “I refuse to change my own beliefs.”

    Set the bar, as high as you want to. Their gods should have no problem clearing it. Then be ready to challenge the various inevitable excuses for why it never happens.

  • Penguin_Factory

    I think I’d find religion a lot more appealing if God was actually referred to as “The Empyrean”. Except you’d have to say it like The Empyrean!!! with a flash of lightning and thunder afterwards.

  • Alex SL

    Ebonmuse,

    nice summary, and I agree completely with you. Unfortunately, some participants in the discussion over at WEIT try to define god out of existence by simply saying that your types I and II aren’t gods. To which I keep responding: with what right would you tell animists, polytheists and deists that they really aren’t because their gods really aren’t? That seems a very cheap move.

    I also have severe doubts that many Muslims or Christians actually believe in an omnipotent, omniscient etc., that is, in a logically impossible deity. They may say it is omnipotent to make it sound important, they may say that it is omniscient so that you learn as a child to fear it all the time, but then they turn around and make excuses for how god cannot avoid all the needless suffering and read an old testament in which god very obviously does not know certain things and is powerless against iron chariots…

  • penn

    I think the problem is that no one is discussing Types I or II gods and no atheist denies that such a being could exist. Types I and II are just very powerful natural beings, so it’s not really that interesting of a discussion.

    There are times when the god of the bible appears to be a Type I god (e.g., his lack of omniscience in the garden, the whole iron chariots issue, etc.), but no modern Christian would accept their god as anything but a Type III. That’s where the argument is, and that concept is completely ill-defined.

    L.Long (@7) says:

    Type II g0d – is silly as that means ‘we’ do not exist except as a ‘TRON’ type construct so who cares.

    I think we’d all care. Is our existence actually less meaningful if this isn’t the “real” universe? Nick Bostrom who is a philosophy professor at Oxford actually argues

    [A]t least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

  • Jack M.

    To me, all ideas of god entail a claim that god is uncaused.

    If a being claiming he was uncaused appeared and said that he wanted to show convincing evidence that he had no cause whatsoever, what evidence could he possibly supply?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    @Just Al:

    If/when we get this rare opportunity, I think it’s counter-productive to avoid addressing the viewpoint about hard evidence and rational support for beliefs/actions. Anyone that claims to have no answer because of badly-defined absolute concepts like omnipotence is only going to be heard to say, “I refuse to change my own beliefs.”

    Yes, exactly! Being able to say, “I will change my mind under circumstances X, Y and Z” is one of the most powerful rhetorical weapons we have against religious believers, because the vast majority of them can offer no such list of their own, and we benefit greatly from the comparison by looking rational and open-minded to those sitting on the fence. It would be a major loss for us if we were to give that up.

    @Jack M:

    To me, all ideas of god entail a claim that god is uncaused.

    That seems like a strange requirement to me. Sure, most monotheistic religions today insist that their god is uncaused, but that’s a fairly new belief coming after centuries of theological evolution and refinement. The pagan religions that people followed for thousands of years were perfectly comfortable with their chief gods being caused or created by something else. As Alex SL said in #15, it seems churlish to tell all the cultures of antiquity that by definition they didn’t really believe in any gods, no matter how much they thought otherwise.

  • Andrew G.

    I think a lot of this debate is missing the point in an important way.

    Sure, we can dream up examples of god hypotheses which are not logically inconsistent; but these don’t have any actual relationship to the gods that people actually believe in.

    To take a specific example, I would assert that there is no possible evidence that could prove the existence of the Christian god. Here’s why: suppose a type II or type III god actually showed up, provided irrefutable evidence of its power, and claimed that it was the god described in the Christian bible (give or take some poetic license here and there). That last claim would be logically unsustainable, because the evidence already collected is inconsistent with the biblical claims. In order to be consistent with past evidence, such a god would either have to change the past, or repudiate enough of the bible’s explicit claims as to completely undercut the religion that people have actually been following for the past couple of millennia.

    So, with regard to god hypotheses in general, there is the possibility of evidence; but with regard to existing religions, the most you can generally say is that there could have been evidence, but that in the present time, there is no longer any possible evidence which both supports the religion and is consistent with the past (lack of) evidence under the assumption that the religion is true.

    Which is why, if someone claiming to be Jesus showed up and started resurrecting people, healing amputees, or doing other provable miracles, I’d have no hesitation in classifying him under “sufficiently advanced alien who has studied Earth folklore and decided to have a bit of fun”, rather than as the real thing.

  • LindaJoy

    Every once in awhile I come across atheists who say that no one can absolutely deny that there isn’t a “God” or there are no gods. I don’t agree with that at all. I think that one can certainly say with all conviction that there are NO gods, period. The universe does have some rules. For instance, I can also say with all conviction that there are no horses galloping around on the moon. I can say that because we know that horses need oxygen to survive that could not live on the moon. I will continue to put “God” or gods in that same category. I don’t get atheists who leave the door open a bit or claim that other atheists should not take the “no God” stance because you can’t prove a negative any more than you can prove a positive.

    For example, Julian Baggini (who I met and talked to for a brief interview) wrote a book entitled “Atheism- A Very Short Introduction”. It’s a great little book, but I took exception to his description of “dogmatic atheism” as being on par with dogmatic theists. He says that a dogmatic atheist is someone who believes that God does not exist and that there is no way that they could possibly be wrong to hold that belief. He also says that dogmatic atheists views are just as dangerous as dogmatic theistic views and that he is equally opposed to both.

    I would fall into his dogmatic atheist column, and I think it is fine to be there basically because of what I said… the universe does have some absolute and unchangable rules. And for me, one of them is that there are no gods.

  • penn

    Yes, exactly! Being able to say, “I will change my mind under circumstances X, Y and Z” is one of the most powerful rhetorical weapons we have against religious believers, because the vast majority of them can offer no such list of their own, and we benefit greatly from the comparison by looking rational and open-minded to those sitting on the fence. It would be a major loss for us if we were to give that up.

    I really don’t like the argumentum ad consequentiam in there. It doesn’t matter if it’s rhetorically unhelpful if it’s true. No one is debating that Type I or II gods could be proven. That’s completely irrelevant since no significant groups believe in Type I or II gods. Type III is all that matters, and if it’s an incoherent concept, then we should say so, and not worry about the rhetorical value of such an answer.

  • JohnB

    Even then, proof is slippery. Just suppose your atheist friend had one such experience. He walked outside and saw a giant hand come out of the sky, the hand pointed at him and a booming voice said “Become a Christian. Trust in Jesus.” and say for the sake of argument that it really is God’s hand and God’s voice. What could he say to you to convince you?

    Even if he had a camera and he took a photo. How easily would you be convinced?

  • other scott

    Type I God makes so much more sense than any of the other gods, it is the only one that could possible exist within this universe as we know it (Sure type II god could exist but that raises a bunch more questions about the universe as we know it), why theists need to look further is beyond me. But then again I don’t understand why people believe they need to worship our ‘creator’ anyway.

    If I were to create a race of advanced robots in my image (capable of thought and feeling), then demanded they worship and grovel before my brilliance under threat of eternal torture, I’m pretty sure most of the world would view me as a monster…

  • Alex Weaver

    Type II g0d – is silly as that means ‘we’ do not exist except as a ‘TRON’ type construct so who cares.

    I think we’d all care. Is our existence actually less meaningful if this isn’t the “real” universe?

    Timely…

  • Miles McCullough

    I love this list, but I’d change advanced aliens to be incapable of traditional immortality. Extreme durability, indefinite life extension, and backups in the mothership just off-world maybe, but throwing it into the sun would definitely destroy any in-universe god, no? I mean, unless they had like a suit with a miniature nuclear reactor powering a forcefield that could charge nearby particles and magnetically deflect them and cool down the wearer that kicked in automatically when going near really hot objects… then maybe they could exist for a long time even in the center of the sun, but… a black hole would definitely do them in, right? Unless their power source can also automatically turn their entire body into a strange type of inverse particles exactly the same but with negative mass so that they accelerate away from our gravity wells… OK fine maybe it is possible. My fanboy mind is sated again.

  • Miles McCullough

    I take The Empyrean to be a subclass of bodyless minds. And by bodyless I mean truly bodyless – not merely invisible, not hiding in another universe or dimension or plane of existence, but truly bodyless.

    For theists I think this is so fundamental they often forget to mention it or don’t even realize they’ve made the jump. After all souls are bodyless minds too, and everyone knows we have those, right? I think many theists – at least those that have thought the problem through and still believe – think of souls like Platonic ideas: lacking a location in any dimension, in any plane of existence. Maybe that’s what apologists mean when they talk about sophisticated theology and why we should read Aquinas et al (who I’m sure were heavily influenced by Plato).

    The problem, at least for my atheist friends and myself, is that we think one of the properties of existence is location in some dimension or other. For us, a bodyless mind is a contradiction and there’s no need to go any further, because contradictions obviously don’t exist, so theists can’t possibly mean that, can they? They must really mean there is a soul on some plane of existence somewhere interacting with the brain. Except I really don’t think they do. I think they believe in existence without location and call it one of the mysteries of god like the trinity or the problem of evil.

  • John Nernoff

    I have long argued that theists have no idea WHAT the “God” IS they babble about. They say it is the “creator” but that describes what the “God” does, not what it is. And so on with the other OMNIMAX characteristics. Many contradictions can be drawn comparing these features (see Ted Drange).

    A recent opponent, a Catholic, says “God” is a “spirit” and leaves it at that. I say that theists have long said that, and that “spirit” is part of the commonplace language usage, but that it really is a tautology.

    “Spirits” are invisible, varied in supposed characteristics (e.g. Allah v Yahweh v Jesus v Holy Spirit) and cannot be pinned down as to hard core characteristics.

    The motivation for asserting there is a “God” is 1. ignorance of why there is anything at all (or a world or universe), 2. why there is me (v endless other possibilities — I could have been a flea or a snake) and 3. is the strong urge to believe there an afterlife (in heaven or in hell), and why.
    These all remain puzzles with no clear answer except to suppose there is some “supreme being” that would explain it all versus a denial of all based on Naturalism.

    The final question (e.g. TOE or GUT) concerns the nature of nature. Why are there “laws” that matter and energy “obey”? Why does there seem to be consistency and uniformity in all areas of the universe supposedly explained by the Big Bang and “inflation” (which has been questioned, notably in the latest Scientific American.

    I will bet that 99% of theists of all “faiths” believe “God” is a sky man. They think so as a child and continue to hold it, secretly as adults, fearing embarrassment if they blurt it out. So a large variety of sophisticated conceits have been manufactured to mask this childish belief and enable one to appear rational and sophisticated among their peers in society:

    Ground of all being, ineffable, infinite, eternal, immortal, transcendental, upholder, sustainer, savior, uncreated, first cause, necessary being, ontologically perfect, Omnimax, benevolent, Love (God is love), spirit, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Holy )….
    The Catholic Catechism’s confession is: “God” is an incomprehensible, invisible, mystery (condensed by me from several areas in the Catechism). They don’t know what “God” actually IS either!

    So my bottom line reply to all theists is: What IS God? Of what IS it composed? How does it DO anything? What does it look like? How do you detect it directly? How do you know anything about it? How does it operate? Why?

    Often the appeal to religious experience is made. I reply, how do you know the entity of the experience has many or all of the commonly ascribed characteristics (“Omnimax”) attributed to it?
    How do you know it is omniscient? Did you ask it all questions and get all correct answers?
    Omnipotent? Did it perform all actions for you?
    Omnibenevolent? DId it do only good things?
    Infinite? Did you track it one on one to all places?
    Eternal? Did you track it through all of time?
    (and so forth through all claims)

    Obviously the theist is only guessing. I hold there is no substance whatsoever backing up ANY of the claims made for “God” and that it does not and cannot exist.


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