[Editor’s note: People had such fun with “The Economist Zone” that I thought the same vehicle might be useful on this grander topic. In contrast to the debate over the government debt, however, on these weighty matters I’m not as sure what Steve Landsburg’s views are, and I have even less confidence in the statements I attribute to the other Actor in this dialog. I hope both of them will forgive me if I innocently misrepresent them. In any event, the following might offer a new perspective on these matters for some readers.–RPM]
Landsburg versus the LORD
Landsburg: (stunned) You exist! I can’t believe it!
The LORD: Your word choice is very revealing.
Landsburg: (shock turning to alarm) Look, heh heh, I hope there are no hard feelings. I mean really, I was just using the brain that–now I know!–you gave me. Thanks, by the way. But the only reason I was telling everyone you didn’t exist, was that you did a pretty good job hiding yourself. I wasn’t the only skeptic, after all. Just about all the rational, scientific people came to the same conclusion, so you really can’t blame us.
The LORD: Do the ranks of the rational, scientific people not include Copernicus, Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Faraday, Mendel, Newton, and Einstein? They didn’t share the same view of me, but they all knew I existed.
Landsburg: Of course there were prominent scientists who were theists, just like there were prominent scientists who were atheists. But the point is, the theists had no good evidence for their views. It was probably just how they were raised to think about the world.
The LORD: No evidence? Steven, your blindness is tragic. I have bent over backwards to show all of my children that they have a Father who loves them.
Landsburg: (so stunned that he forgets he is talking to an omnipotent being) What the heck are you talking about? I admit I was wrong–since I’m here talking to you–but c’mon, you were hiding all along. There was no rational reason to believe in you.
The LORD: Steven, for you, the first clue should have been the elegance, complexity, and sheer unpredictability of mathematics. There’s no reason for mathematics to be the way it is, except that I designed the structure of reality to be such, and endowed you with the logical faculties necessary to grasp some of its properties. Some of your brothers recognized My fingerprints.
Landsburg: (annoyed) With all due respect, surely you can’t expect that to be an independent argument. Right, if someone already believed, then it would make sense for him to attribute the beauty of mathematics to your handiwork. But invoking “God did it” doesn’t really add much explanatory power, for someone who comes to the table as an atheist.
The LORD: All right, let’s move on. I specifically designed the physical universe, and the laws that govern it, to give evidence of My existence. Many of your great scientists–even skeptics–have conceded that the charge on an electron and other parameters of the universe appear to have been deliberately calibrated to support human life.
Landsburg: Sure, I’m familiar with that line of reasoning, and the standard explanation is that there are an infinite number of possible universes, the vast majority of which don’t support life. Since we are alive and able to investigate this particular universe, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that it’s capable of supporting life.
The LORD: It’s interesting that the people who demand “empirical evidence” for My existence, themselves adopt a worldview that at step one posits an infinite number of entire universes, all of which by definition are incapable of ever being subject to empirical investigation.
Landsburg: What’s your point?
The LORD: Let’s move on, Steven. Why did you ignore all of the prophets I sent? Indeed I became human Myself, walked the earth for three decades, teaching and performing miracles, and telling everyone just Who I AM and about the nature of My Kingdom. Indeed, there was a book written about these events, and it sold quite nicely. Throughout the centuries, countless people of great creativity, courage, and passion performed great feats in My name. They all reported being in personal relationship with Me. Billions of people through history have reported feeling an emptiness that only I can fill. Every culture in human history has grappled with Me in its own way. None of this constituted evidence for you that I AM?
Landsburg: Look, you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. Of course I had heard about Bible stories, and I watched Charlton Heston just like everybody else. But I had no reason to actually believe those reports of miracles. They contradicted what I took to be the findings of modern science. There are all sorts of myths floating around. These anecdotal accounts of personal revelation or other “miraculous” events are just hearsay.
The LORD: What if there were a miraculous event that was simultaneously experienced by more than 10,000 people, with reporters present? You would believe then?
Landsburg: No, because that wasn’t a reproducible event. There are other, more reasonable explanations for what those people claim to have experienced. If we had controlled experiments, then we could isolate whether they really were seeing divine apparitions or if instead they were frying their eyeballs by staring at the sun.
The LORD: Let me make sure I understand your position. You would only be willing to entertain even the possibility that a miracle had occurred, if you could reproduce it in a controlled setting, to understand the laws governing its occurrence.
Landsburg: That’s not quite my position, but sure that’s a good first approximation.
The LORD: Generally speaking, people conceive of “miracles” as being deviations from the normal progress of natural laws. So your stance rules out miracles a priori. By definition, your approach would never let you detect any evidence of divine intervention.
Landsburg: You’re a very skilled debater, I’ll grant you that, but no, I don’t think that’s right. I insist on reproducibility not because I want the theist to fail, but simply because that’s the only way to be sure we’re not fooling ourselves with confirmation bias or other prejudices. But if you really wanted us to have objective evidence of your existence, you should have allowed for some commonly recurring phenomenon, that was qualitatively beyond the ability of the natural sciences to explain. Not ancient stories of a guy talking to a burning bush, but something that scientists the world over would have access to today to subject it to their own approaches. And if they walked away saying, “There is no way we can explain that, by reference to mechanical laws,” well then, that would be pretty good evidence that you existed.
The LORD: Steven, did anybody ever tell you where babies come from?
Landsburg: Is that a joke?
The LORD: Expectant parents often watch instructional videos called some variant of, “The Miracle of Birth.” That title is quite appropriate. Every day, in cities across the world, new people are created. Somehow, existing sentient beings are able to ingest material from the outside world, and transform it into an assembly of molecules that apparently houses a new, intelligent being with a personality, hopes, desires, the capacity for love and hate…some would say, they created a vehicle into which a soul would be deposited. Now yes, your scientists have made inroads on the various physical processes involved, but would you say they are close to really understanding exactly where a new human being comes from?
Landsburg: More or less.
The LORD: Less.
Landsburg: Well, again, I realize it’s churlish of me to argue with you, since I can see you with my own eyes and know that you exist, but you can hardly expect us to have thought something was “miraculous” when it happens thousands of times before breakfast all across the world.
The LORD: Steven, Steven, Steven, don’t you see what you’re doing? Every thing you demand of Me, I grant. If something miraculous occurs very rarely, you say that is insufficient evidence. If something miraculous occurs every day, you say that it is too commonplace. What more can I do?
Landsburg: Hey, you’re God! If you really wanted me to know you existed, you could have performed a miracle directly for me–as well as for Christopher Hitchens. Why should we have to rely on indirect evidence and inference drawing?
The LORD: Steven, please read what you wrote on a blog post at that sophomoric site Free Advice.
Landsburg: (quoting himself)
When I was 10 years old, I had a paper route. One Saturday night, I was delivering the Sunday paper (we delivered the Sunday paper on Saturdays) and I had three more houses left to visit — but only one more paper in my wagon. Nothing like this had ever happened before and I was irrationally petrified about the consequences — I thought I would be in some kind of enormous trouble over this and my life would never be the same. So I turned my back to the wagon and prayed that when I turned back around, there would be three papers in that wagon. (I was, I think, something of an agnostic at that time, attributing maybe a 50% probability to the existence of God.) I waited a long time to turn back around, to give God a chance to do his work. When I turned around, there were three papers in that wagon, though I had double, triple and quadruple checked the wagon in my early desperation, and there had definitely been only one paper. And EVEN THEN, my first reaction (well, my second reaction, following enormous relief) was:
“Wow. It seems almost impossible that those two extra papers were there all along and I failed to see them. But almost impossible as it might be, it’s still more plausible than that God did this.” I stand by that reaction.
The LORD: My dear Steven, there are many things you may want to say to me now. But asking why I hid Myself from you cannot be one of them.