This article is a companion piece to Falsifiability.
Here is a simple question that everyone should do their best to answer before engaging in any kind of discussion, debate, or experiment.
What would it take to convince you that your current belief is wrong?
This question addresses the concept of open-mindedness. Far too often people engage in “discussions” having completely made up their minds beforehand. This can often lead to people ignoring each other, talking past each other, or just plain moving the goalposts. In order to avoid all of that and allow for debate to actually make progress, it is important to establish criteria beforehand. If you can answer this question, you will enter the event with a greater willingness to consider your opponent’s position. After all, if your current belief is wrong, then you won’t correct it by refusing to even think about the opposing side.
This is a very common problem in religious discussions and debates. I have seen far too many people frantically scrambling to shuffle terminology to dodge a critical question. Others will carefully reparse an earlier claim to avoid unforeseen and damning conclusions, while some are perfectly comfortable with simply ignoring the opposition in favor of living in their own little bubble of a world. If people aren’t willing to listen, there’s not much point in talking to them. So before I get into the question of whether or not any gods exist, I must first settle the question of open-mindedness.
So to all the theists out there, tell me what it would take to convince you that your god isn’t real. Be honest with me, and be honest with yourself. If you give me a set of criteria that I later meet, I don’t want you backpedalling to avoid the consequences. Think about it carefully, give me a concrete answer, and live up to that answer.
And to all you atheists out there, don’t think you can dodge this exercise. I want to hear from you too. What would it take to convince you that some sort of god does exist? Figure out your criteria and stick to them.
If you’re having trouble, here are a few suggestions on how to approach the question.
One technique is to ask yourself why you have the belief you currently do. If you can understand how you reached your current position, it may very well help you to determine what is needed to make you take a different position. Many beliefs are reached by the meeting of specific criteria, which can in turn help you establish criteria for abandoning the belief. For instance, you may find that you believe your parents love you because of several loving acts they have performed for you over the years. In this case, you may also find that your belief will change if your parents suddenly begin to commit many spiteful, hurtful acts upon you.
You may also find it helpful to begin with a less difficult but similar question. For instance, you could ask yourself “What would it take to make me doubt my current position.” If something causes you to doubt a belief, then a lot of that something may cause you to abandon the belief altogether. So if you have trouble even considering the idea of not believing that your parents love you, you should first try considering the idea of doubting that belief while not yet abandoning it. Find something that makes you doubt, dial it up to eleven, and you will probably have something that makes you change sides.
And of course I’m going to have to play fair. It doesn’t do to come out here and demand that people demonstrate their open-mindedness without first demonstrating my own. So I’m going to use author’s privilege and be the first to answer my own question.
You hear that theists? All you Jehova’s Witnesses out there, all you televangelists, I’m going to give you a guide, a specific procedure on how to convince me. And I don’t think it’s just me. I get the feeling a lot of atheists out there will answer this question in the same way. So if you really want to convince people that your god exists, just follow these three simple steps.
Step 1: Tell me what you mean by “god.”
This step is only in here because of all the “new age” crap that keeps popping up. I’ve seen the word god applied to everything from a bearded white man who sits on a cloud to a vague, benevolent force to simply “the universe.” I just want to make sure that when you say “god,” and when I say “god,” we’re both talking about the same thing.
Step 2: Use your god(s) to make a specific prediction.
See Bayes’ Theorem for why the prediction needs to be specific. Simply put, it’s far more impressive if I can predict that Mr. John A. Doe will win the 2032 Nobel Prize for developing a quantum description of gravity than for me to predict that some guy will get major kudos for doing something awesome sometime in the 2030’s. The more specific your prediction is, the more convincing a successful execution of Step 3 will be.
And keep in mind that you have to use your god(s). Don’t give me a copy of Shankar’s Principles of Quantum Mechanics with the word “god” stuck in at odd intervals. If I can remove god from your theory and still be left with the exact same predictions, then you haven’t used your god at all, you’ve just tacked him on in an awkward fashion.
Step 3: Test your prediction.
If you use your god to make a specific prediction, and that prediction comes to pass, this is good evidence for your god. The more specific the prediction you made, the stronger the evidence. An accurate and reasonably specific prediction will certainly cause me to doubt my current position. Be wary though. Failed predictions count as evidence against your god. But if you demonstrate a consistent track record in making accurate, specific predictions with a theory that genuinely uses your god as a needed premise, you will make a believer out of me.
And there you have it. I’ve told you what it will take to convince me of the theist’s position. Now let’s hear others do the same. Then we’ll see which side can deliver.