What would it take for me to believe?
One of the most important questions that can be asked when arguing a topic is, "What would it take for you to believe?" When I ask this of religious people, they usually respond with, "nothing," but some of the more open-minded people have actually given me a list. Since I too like to keep an open mind, I have decided to come up with a list of various forms of evidence that I would find compelling to believe in gods, souls, and various other supernatural claims. Some of the criteria may seem demanding, but they are necessary to exclude uncertainty or reveal deception. I suspect this list will grow as I'm asked to consider new beliefs.
By this I mean extraterrestrial life on other planets. Although I find the possibility of alien life every exciting, I do not believe in any of the anecdotes people have told over the years. I think mental phenomena like sleep paralysis, delusions, drug use, sleep deprivation, and straight up lying are much more believable candidates. Assuming that abiogenesis is true, I think alien life is plausible, but I don't believe things just because they're plausible. Here's how you could convince me of alien life:
- The best way to demonstrate this, is simply to show me the aliens and let me interact with them for awhile to be sure that they're not just people in a costume, puppets, robots, or similar forms of deception.
- Failing that, I would have to see high-quality video footage of the aliens filmed by a trusted source like a major journal, as well as additional footage from various angles by multiple people. Experts in digital manipulation should explain why they believe the film is genuine, so single photos or anonymously posted videos on YouTube do not count. I don't just mean footage of an unidentified flying craft, that could be terrestrial, I mean footage of the aliens themselves.
- Expert scientists in the field of exobiology should weigh in their opinions and explain why the evidence supports genuine aliens.
- I would expect various aerospace authorities around the world to independently acknowledge the aliens approaching the Earth.
- Personal stories, no matter how vivid, are not evidence. Scraps of metal and plastic, no matter how unidentifiable, are not evidence.
- If the evidence is in the form of photos of exoplanets, it should be high-enough quality to clearly determine an alien life form, the source of the photo must be clearly from an organization like NASA, and it must be viewed as genuine by various experts in the field.
- If such evidence existed, I would believe in aliens.
A bible is a collection of various Jewish works from different times in the religion's history and from different sects of the religion. Every major branch of Christianity disagrees on which books should be considered canon and which translation should be preferred. Despite the variations, they're all pretty similar, but I do not find any variation of the bible to be a reliable source of history, morality, or truth, but here is how you could convince me:
- Morality: Explain how all of the apparently immoral rules of the bible (selling your children into slavery, a god ordering genocide, punishing people for someone else's crimes, taking young women as sex slaves in battle, etc.) are not only acceptable, but morally perfect.
- History: Show me why all of the apparently failed prophecies in the bible were actually successful. For example, in Isiah, God says he will destroy Damascus (it still exists), dry up the Nile (it's still flowing), and prevent uncircumcised men from entering Jerusalem (they're there now).
- Accuracy: Show me how all of the apparently incorrect factual descriptions are actually correct. For example, the bible describes the universe essentially like a snow globe with a dome of the sky, the Earth is a flat disc at the center, the heavens and Earth are described as unmoving, stars are tiny lights that can fall to the Earth, etc. It also groups bats with birds, says rabbits chew their cud, and so forth.
- Reliability: Explain which variations of the earliest manuscripts are the correct ones, and how you can be certain. Also, explain the large portions of text that only show up centuries after the original is estimated to have been written like the, the Comma in I John, the ending of Mark, the adulterous woman in John, etc. Did the authors leave instructions to change the text centuries later? Explain why I should distrust the majority of biblical scholars who doubt the authenticity of the Epistles of Peter, the Epistles of Timothy, the Epistles of John, etc.
- Consistency: Show me how all of the apparent contradictions in the bible are not actually misleading. For example, can all sins be forgiven? Who was Joseph's grandfather? Who were the 12 disciples? Should people pray or do good works in public? How did Judas die? And so on.
- Comprehension: Show me how a book written so long ago that it contains words with lost meanings (gopher, nephilim, pitdah, tachra, tanniyn, tsepha', etc.) can be accurately translated.
- Objectivity: Show me how the authors of the bible were not trying to put forth a religious position, but an unbiased objective factual account of history.
- Assuming all of these criteria are met, I'd believe the bible is reliable.
I'm setting the bar as low as possible with this one. I'm not asking for evidence of any particular religion's god or a even one with any specific powers (like being all-knowing or perfectly moral). I'm just talking about a generic supernatural entity of sufficient ability that could be categorized as a god. I do not believe in any gods, but here is how you could convince me:
- The god must show itself to me and demonstrate supernatural abilities. I will not accept logical "proofs" because, while I enjoy discussing logical proofs, they cannot demonstrate the existence of anything specific. How would you construct a valid syllogism to prove the existence of your dog without actually showing it?
- In order to demonstrate that the entity's abilities are sufficiently impressive to categorize it as a god. To demonstrate how it is not just using superior technology, it should defying the most fundamental laws of physics. Also, to rule out sleight of hand, the demonstration cannot be anything that can be duplicated by a magician.
- Some examples that I would find satisfactory: if the god claims to be supernaturally strong, we should expect it to emerge unscathed after being covered in burning thermite and hit with a speeding freight train. If the god claims to be supernaturally smart, it should be able to correctly answer difficult questions posed by top experts in assorted fields. If the god claims to know the future, it should be able to write down a list of ten unrelated words, numbers, and phrases, seal them in an envelope, and allow me to write down my own list before opening their's, and both lists must match. If the god claims to be able to heal diseases, it should be able to eradicate complicated diseases, and doctors must agree that the patient had the disease before meeting with the god, and were completely cured afterward.
- To prevent trickery, I would want the demonstration to be filmed and thoroughly examined by people skilled in identifying cheating.
- To eliminate luck, I would expect the god's abilities to be tested several times under various conditions, by multiple people.
- In order to ensure that I'm not suffering from hallucinations or delusions, I would want psychologists and neurologists to rule out any mental disorders.
- Assuming all these criteria are met, I would believe in the proposed god.
I don't mean Jesus as a metaphor or Jesus as a mortal teacher, but the Jesus Christians believe to be the Jewish Messiah, performed miracles, and worship as one third of the god Yahweh. I do not believe that Jesus is part-god or performed the miracles attributed to him in the Gospels, but here is how you could convince me:
- Jesus should appear to me and demonstrate some of his miracles. Excuses like "mocking god" or "lacking faith" are not acceptable. It is rational, not a mockery, to require evidence before believing in a supernatural claim, and, yes, I do lack faith, that's why I'm expecting evidence. If Jesus is godly powerful, a demonstration can't possibly be much an inconvenience.
- Like with the generic god above, in order to eliminate trickery, I will need a demonstration that can't be duplicated by stage magicians. Jesus must do something impressive like resurrect a corpse that has been dead for years, regrow the leg of an amputee before my eyes, or something of that nature.
- Jesus must be able to show why he is part of Yahweh, and not some other god pretending to be Jesus. I'm not sure how he would do this, but, being a god, he should be able to think of something.
- I will not accept the bible as evidence because I don't believe it is a reliable source of information (see below if you want to change my mind), and because it's within Jesus' power to demonstrate himself to me directly.
- Assuming all these criteria are met, I'd believe in Jesus.
Souls are usually described as conscious eternal supernatural entities that are bound to a body when it is alive, but which live on after the body dies. Most religions believe our soul lives on after we die and carries our moral past, allowing us to be punished for evil deeds and rewarded for good deeds. In addition, some people claim that, when near death or briefly dead, their soul floats around the room before returning to their bodies when their revived. I do not believe in souls, but here is how you could convince me:
- I would need to see a way to reliably and concretely measure the existence of a soul.
- For example, if someone claims they have the ability to see souls through opaque screens, they should be able to determine which screens have people behind them and which ones don't.
- In order to be sure the person is not accidentally or surreptitiously measuring a natural metric of the body (body heat, pulse, skin conductivity, etc.), physiologists should be present to weigh in on the test. Likewise, in order to exclude the measurement of any natural emergent property of the brain like the mind or consciousness, neurologists should be present.
- To ensure that a near-death or temporarily-dead experience isn't just a delusion in an oxygen deprived brain, people must demonstrate specific knowledge unavailable to them while they were alive. For example, if a piece of paper with a random word were placed on a tall shelf in the operating room, various patients who were temporarily dead must routinely be able to correctly identify the number without ever seeing it.
- Assuming all these criteria are met, I'd believe in souls.