God Can’t Prove Much to Puny Mortals

Over in the comment thread of last week’s post on standards of proof for miracles, P. Coyle and Iota have been hashing out the classic argument that a truly unambiguous miracle would be a blow against our free will, forcing us to believe in God.  I want to walk through and discuss their positions, since this is a common Christian contention (and because it’s going to set me up perfectly for a Harry Potter fanfiction reference in today’s Sunday’s Good Book post).  Everyone’s comments have been trimmed for length; I’ve tried to keep the messages clear, but it’s worth going back to the original comment thread.

P. Coyle framed the problem through the analogous case of a juror whose beliefs are compelled by evidence:

Suppose you are on a jury. You have been presented with evidence that has convinced you, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty. Having been so convinced, could you, as an act of free will, “choose to believe” that the defendant is NOT guilty? My contention is that you could not. Yes, you could use your free will to vote to acquit the accused, even though you believe he is guilty, but you would be using your free will to choose how to act, not to choose what to believe…

Thus, I still remain completely unconvinced by your previous argument that God, if he existed, could not demonstrate his existence to us beyond a reasonable doubt without interfering with our free will. To reiterate, by analogy you seem to be saying that a prosecutor who presents a jury with sufficient evidence to demonstrate the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt is interfering with the jury’s free will.

Iota agreed that a prosecutor presenting evidence beyond a reasonable doubt would ‘force’ a juror to believe in the defendant’s guilt but countered by saying that God has a qualitatively different power to compel belief:

What I could choose to do [in the jury example] would be to either say that because I find the evidence compelling I WON’T be convinced of any alternative (upgrading my “moral certainty” to “absolute certainty”) or to say “Of course, I COULD be wrong…” (even if I think that chance is 0,000001%)…

A prosecutor similarly could not “prove” that Mr. Smith is innocent of a crime. He could prove that, given there are no advances in forensics and no evidence was misinterpreted, Mr. Smith did not kill Ms. Newman in the way the prosecution states she had been killed.

What the prosecution could not do (and here they significantly differ from God) is wipe away all those extra conditions above. And those extra conditions are important. If none of them remained, I could not make the choice I wrote of above (between upgrading my “moral certainty” to “absolute certainty” or not) – it simply would be upgraded, without any choice on my part. And that upgrade, I think, is the essence of “having faith” as I understand it.

Personally, I think Iota is overestimating the power even an omniscient god would have to prove it’s existence to us.  Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism had an excellent post this week on the difficulty of distinguishing between between gods, sufficiently advanced aliens, etc.  No god could muster proof of abilities that are beyond our capacity to comprehend; I can see someone bilocate, but I can’t observe an ability to be all-loving.  Ebonmuse correctly concluded that any sufficiently powerful being, whether or not it was God, would be able to compel ritual worship and belief in existence.

Maybe even these guys

A different Christian talking point seems like it could be of use here.  Plenty of Christians I’ve scrapped with sidestep a demand for proof of God’s existence by asking me, “Can you prove your mother loves you?”  There’s no way to conclusively settle the question, no proof to offer a skeptic, but we’re comfortable relying on our experience and letting it serve as the foundation of our lives.  My mother’s love is a lot more interesting than the simple fact of my mother’s existence.

I’m not very sympathetic to the the argument God mustn’t overwhelm us with proof of existence, since acknowledging a being is a long way from loving.  Any god/alien/person with a really sharp stick could force me to believe in their power and make me build temples to their might, but what the Christian god wants is willing, joyful obedience born out of love.  Lucifer’s non serviam seems like evidence that knowledge of God’s existence and power isn’t enough to compel loving submission.

There are other arguments for the legitimacy of a hidden god, but this one sure doesn’t hold water for me.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Darren

    ”…Christians I’ve scrapped with sidestep a demand for proof of God’s existence by asking me, “Can you prove your mother loves you?””

    Almost two years gone, but what the hey.

    I can’t. But, my mother behaves in a manner consistent with what I would expect from a person in her position who _did_ love me.

    Do Christian apologists really use this argument? they would seem to set themselves up for the above response, and the (to me) logical follow up that no entity is to be found acting as an Omniscient / Omnipotent / Omnibenevolent God who wished to be unambiguously known by his creations would behave…

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