Finding the right gap

There’s been a discussion of agnosticism in comments at Pharyngula, with Stephen Novella offering some attempted clarifications. I think agnostics or “agnostics” of the Mark Vernon type have muddied the waters. Not knowing doesn’t have to be some mushy compromise between theism and atheism; not knowing really does matter.

That’s central to all these “what would it take to convince you of god/the supernatural” questions – often the examples offered are of things it would be very hard or impossible for people to actually know. If a 900 foot Jesus appeared – well, appeared where? And how would anyone know it was Jesus? And what about all the people who didn’t see it, because they were ill in bed, or in prison, or stuck in a collapsed mine? For them it would be hearsay. But there would be videos. Yes but videos aren’t the same thing. And so on. It’s really hard to think of something that everybody could know about first-hand. Magic tricks with a particular word in every book and magazine in the world, for instance, wouldn’t work, because how would anyone know that?

What we can and can’t know really does matter.

The question should therefore be more limited. “What would it take to convince you that there are good reasons to believe in god/the supernatural?” That would be a lower standard, because the reasons wouldn’t have to convince you, but you could agree that they could reasonably convince other people. That question is more like asking, “What would be a better gap than the ones people point to now?”

All you would have to come up with would be something hard or impossible to explain given our current knowledge, without having to agree that you yourself would be forced to agree that it convinced you that god/the supernatural exists.

This is helpful because it’s hard to think of anything that really forces that conclusion. It’s always possible to think “but I could just think I might be hallucinating, so I would never be really convinced.”

Unless you simply make that part of the thought experiment, in which case it becomes true by definition. Let’s stipulate that, then. Yes: if there were something that forced me to believe despite thoughts of hallucination, then yes, I would believe.

We could say that the experience would be such that it made the hallucination possibility unreal – that I could mouth the words, but not actually believe them. But saying that is itself  mouthing words. We can’t know that there is such a thing, or that there could be. Maybe there could, but we don’t know.

Tricky, isn’t it.

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