We had a newcomer to the Humanist Society pub night tonight. He was a former Catholic seminarian who’s now a general theist with a vaguely Christian bent, and he seemed quite reasonable, except for his one argument for the existence of God. It’s quite remarkable really. He rejected all of the classical arguments for God, and for generally good reasons, but he still had this bullshit argument that he thought was sound. I’ll try and make it as succinct as possible.
He started off by noting that people seem to have supernatural connections with people that they love. He had two examples of this, basically people who seemed to know when something bad had happened to someone that they loved. This relationship doesn’t seem to happen with people you hate, for example. He then postulated that the basic Christian definition of God is ‘God is Love‘, and that based on that, these connections are evidence for some sort of vaguely Christian God.
Now obviously we wanted clarification on a few things. We asked him what he meant by ‘God is Love’ because it pretty much doesn’t make sense, he said that there was a loving relationship between the beings of God (he suggested a trinity) and that since people are part of God and God is part of people (as exemplified by Jesus becoming man and the phrase “When 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them“, that’s the explanation for this link between people. I think ‘tenuous at best’ is how I described that – it’s pure retrospective interpretation.
Let’s take a slightly closer look at this. There is no good evidence that people have some sort of psychic connection with the people they love, and indeed it would be quite a hard experiment to put together to prove it. What I would say is that the limited number of examples he said he had is nowhere near enough to convince me that this is a genuine effect, particularly when you take into account what Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow calls the PETWHAC, or Population of Events That Would Have Appeared Coincidental. So let’s say for example that someone thinks about someone they love and then find out later that they died in a car accident. How close to the moment they died would that thought have to be for it to count as a positive result? Just the same day? Within an hour, or a few minutes? If the thought happened shortly before they died would that count, seeing as even the other person wouldn’t have known by then, or would it perversely be more impressive because this psychic link can apparently tell the future too? How many times do you think about your loved ones and they don’t die? Or what else could have happened to your loved one for you to count it as a positive result? If they stubbed their toe would that count? How many people do you know that have never had such an experience? Suddenly the odds against this happening once in a while to someone you know aren’t so massive.
In short, these anecdotes of supernatural connections are rife with biases, you might misremember when you had the thought to make it fit in better with the spooky explanation, you only remember when you had the thought and something happened, and not the thousands of times you think about someone and nothing happens. You retroactively place the significance of what has happened onto the event. And obviously this happens with people you care about rather than people you hate, simply because you probably care about more people than you hate and you probably think about them an awful lot more often. On hearing these objections he said there was little evidence either way and in the absence of evidence he goes with his own experience (even though we’d just told him his own experience was biased).
But let’s leave all that aside and assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. It seems very strange to me that he takes the definition of God of a group of humans. Surely that would imply that he thinks these people had access to some superior source of information, and yet he offered no reason for that, and no reason why he took this definition over any other. I could make any other dubious observation about humans and link it in somehow with a definition of some entity given by some group, and say that that’s evidence for that entity. In fact I’m going to give it a go right now.
Humans appear to have the ability to tell when they are being watched. The evil Lord Sauron is said by fans of The Lord of the Rings to be one giant eye (substitute omni-present/many-eyed God here), forever watchful. This seemingly supernatural ability on the part of humans is evidence for the existence of the evil Lord Sauron.
Ludicrous, I’m sure you’ll agree. Even if a psychic link between people is proven, and even if it’s proven that people know they’re being watched, that is just an unexplained phenomenon and can’t be reasonably used as a justification for a whole set of other tenuously related beliefs. And yet this exact same kind of reasoning applied to God will carry some weight in theological circles, where you can just make claims in your safe little theological world, trying to make belief in God internally consistent, without having to worry about whether your claims are consistent with what we see in reality or not. There will never be a day when we need more theologians.