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God, ET, and the Supernatural

by Michael Shermer, Nov 06 2012

Why there cannot be a deity beyond the natural world
that science can discover

On Saturday, November 3, 2012 I spoke at the big atheists’ conference in Mexico City on The Believing Brain, my latest book in which I develop a theory to explain not just why people believe weird things, but why people believe anything at all, including and especially god beliefs. (I don’t know if the talk will be posted Online but it is an expanded version of my TED talk or this longer version.

In the audience was the biologist Jerry Coyne, the author of one of the best defenses of evolutionary theory ever penned: Why Evolution is True. He posted a blog about my lecture in which, surprisingly (given his staunch militancy for atheism), he expressed a difference with me in the possibility of there being a God. He writes:

While I respect Shermer’s view that invoking aliens or some unknown explanation avoids a “god of the gaps” argument for unknown and miraculous or divine phenomena, I still feel as a scientist that the existence of a true supernatural god is a theoretical possibility, and that there is some possible evidence that could convince me of it. (I’ve described that evidence before; needless to say, none has been found.) Yes, such miraculous evidence for a god might eventually be found to be due to aliens or the like, but my acceptance of a god would always be a provisional one, subject to revision upon further evidence. (We might find aliens behind the whole thing.) After all, every scientific “truth” is provisional.

Jerry’s allusion to alien gods is in reference to my brief summary in the Q&A of what I originally proposed in a 2002 Scientific American column entitled “Shermer’s Last Law” (title written with tongue firmly in cheek because naming laws after oneself is a sure sign of crankdom): “Any sufficiently advanced extra-terrrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”

Readers will recognize this as a variant of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I expanded on that column in my god chapter in The Believing Brain to address the claim by both theists and atheists that god’s existence is an empirical matter open to verification or refutation. I contend that it is not. Both Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) and Victor Stenger (in God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist) have claimed as much in their books, and I believe that this is what Jerry Coyne means as well. My argument is that the most any natural science could ever discover in the way of a deity would be a natural intelligence sufficiently advanced to be god-like but still within the realm of the natural world. As I wrote in Scientific American:

God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who has them in relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition it would be an ETI!

The logic of this gambit is relatively simple:

  1. Biological evolution progresses at a glacial pace compared to scientific and technological evolution.
  2. The cosmos is very big and space is very empty, so the probability of making contact with an ETI who is only slightly more advanced than us is virtually nil. If we ever do find ETI it will likely be hundreds of thousands or millions of years more advanced than us.
  3. Apply Moore’s Law of the doubling of computing power every year to technology in general (as Ray Kurzweil has done in his book The Singularity is Near), and then imagine an extra-terrestrial civilization a million years more advanced than us. If in a mere century we went from crude rockets to manned-space flight, and from plant-breeding genomics (Gregor Mendel) to the creation of artificial genomes (J. Craig Venter), imagine what an extra-terrestrial intelligence could do in a million years of scientific and technological R&D?
  4. What would you call an entity a million years more technologically advanced than we are? If you don’t know the technology behind it you might call it a god, if you do you would correctly identify it as a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence.

On the matter of the supernatural, Jerry Coyne continues in his blog:

As always, I find the natural/supernatural distinction confusing, and see that it is possible in principle for some divine being who operates outside the laws of physics to exist.  To say there is no possibility of such a thing is an essentially unscientific claim, since there is nothing that science can rule out on first principles.  We rule out things based on evidence and experience, that is, we consider the possibilities of gods extremely unlikely since we have no good evidence for them. But it is close-minded to say that nothing would convince us otherwise.

I disagree. It is simply a matter of what philosophers of science call methodological naturalism, or the process of employing only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to say that there is no such thing as the supernatural. There is just the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as “supernatural” (and, in other realms, the “paranormal”) just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural causes (or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest). I often employ the example of how cosmologists talk about “dark energy” and “dark matter” in reference to the so-called “missing mass” needed to explain the structure and motion of galaxies and galaxy clusters—they do not use these words as causal explanations. The words themselves are just linguistic place holders until the actual forms of matter and energy are discovered and described.

Similarly, when people use the word “mind” they tend to reify it into something that exists up there in the head in addition to the brain. It doesn’t, but let’s say I’m wrong and the “paranormalists” are right that consciousness exists separate from the brain in, perhaps, a quantum state, and that when your neurons fire they are capable of influencing the neurons in someone else’s head, and thus mind-reading or ESP is real. That would no longer be something “paranormal”; instead, it would be entirely within the realm of normal science—quantum neuroscience perhaps.

What Jerry Coyne (and, presumably, Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger) is open-minded about is the possibility of a new and as yet undiscovered natural entity or force at work in the cosmos capable of creating, say, universes, stars, planets, and living beings (Freeman Dyson, Michio Kaku, and science fiction writers have speculated for years on how sufficiently advanced ETIs could create planets, stars, and even universes—it’s all really just an engineering problem to be solved).

A supernatural entity or force (something like the God of Abraham) that exists outside of nature is, by definition, unknowable to science. By contrast, if a supernatural being reaches into our natural world in order to act on it, He must stir the particles in some way (to, say, answer prayers for healing a cancerous tumor by reconfiguring the DNA of the cancerous cells, or to help one nation win a war over another by redirecting bullets and bombs, or to aid one football team defeat another in the Superbowl by deflecting a touchdown pass), and that action must in principle be measurable by science. If it is not measurable even in principle, then it is not knowable by science.

As correctly noted by Mssrs. Coyne, Dawkins, and Stenger, no such particle stirring (or stirrer) has been detected by scientists. But by the logic of Shermer’s Last Law, the only God that science could discover would be a natural being—an entity that exists in space and time and is constrained by the laws of nature. A supernatural God that exists outside of space and time and never interacts with our world is not knowable to science.

Q.E.D.

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19 Responses to “God, ET, and the Supernatural”

  1. Archie Clebberdale says:

    You can put that even more concisely:
    ‘Why there cannot be a discoverable deity beyond the natural world’
    And you can even generalise it a bit:
    ‘Why there can be nothing discoverable beyond the natural world’
    We live in the natural world and if something were discoverable (no matter how, whether it be through science, or accidentally stumbling upon it, or any other method) it would be linked to the natural world. But the natural world consists by definition of anything and everything that’s linked to something else that’s part of the natural world, starting with me. (Although you’d probably insist it should start with you, but the fact that you’re reading this makes the two positions equivalent.)
    What then does the word ‘exist’ (and similar things like ‘be’) mean? It sounds reasonable to state that everything in the natural exists. But would you say Indiana Jones exists? Clearly he’s part of the natural world, although in the form of ideas in people’s heads and representations on cellulose acetate and paper and so on. But at least here we can agree on the facts of the matter and the rest is just semantics.
    What would it mean for some X outside the natural world to exist? Does ‘X exists’ mean X is part of the natural world? What if some force were to rip the natural world in two disconnected pieces, would the part that doesn’t contain me still exist? And how would I be able to tell the difference from the situation where the other part is destroyed rather than torn off anyway?
    Frankly, I think this is more about semantics and definitions than anything else, but in my experience the question does seem to keep philosophy students entertained. But it is interesting to note that under definitions I’ve heard that are in context sensible, the opening sentence of this article reduces to a logical tautology, at least for the practical case that we seem to be in.

  2. Andrew McColl says:

    I have a quibble with the probability Shermer describes re ET being more advanced than us –surely that probability is based on the assumption that intelligence is inevitable? Given how long there has been life on Earth and given that intelligence of the sort that leads to applied technologies (and the knowledge required to make them possible) appears to have arisen only within the very, very recent past, why should we assume that ET intelligence of the same sort is inevitable? (Perhaps there is a why, but if there is one I’ve yet to read it.)

    Furthermore there are examples in our own history of cultures where the pursuit of technological advance was perceived as such a low priority that some aspects of technological capability -and by implication the knowledge-base required for that capability- actually regressed. This might suggest that even if ET is both smart and older than us, it is by no means certain that ET would inevitably know more than we do. Or am I missing something?

    • Jeffery2010 says:

      I think what you’re missing is the part where we make some kind of contact with it, or receive knowledge of it’s/their existence. In such a case their technology would require the great leaps suggested.

      • Andrew McColl says:

        …unless we don’t encounter them until we’re in a position to go to them, which to me seems just as likely (or unlikely) as them coming to us.

        My quibble was more about Shermer adopting the apparent automatic assumption that seems to underpin any discussion of ET -that if we find life we’ll also find intelligence, as if intelligence should be regarded as somehow the pinnacle of the wonders of life rather than as just one of the many wonders.

  3. Ed Lazda says:

    **A supernatural God that exists outside of space and time and never interacts with our world is not knowable to science.**

    True. And, of course, is entirely irrelevant, since it cannot accept devotion, answer prayers or be involved in any other “godlike” behaviour. For all practical purposes, it does not exist.

  4. CountryGirl says:

    If you were a true atheist no one owuld ever know. What you are is a religious atheist proselytizing your beliefs. A real atheist would not care what someone else believes.

  5. Gr8GooglyMoogly says:

    @CountryGirl “A real atheist would not care what someone else believes.”.

    Ahh, the ‘True Scotsman’ fallacy. One wonders – who defines the characteristics of the ‘real’ atheist?

  6. MadScientist says:

    The question is “which god”? No god I know of can exist. Many people make concessions to a god that originally created everything and did nothing more – the theistic god – and yet even the theistic god explains nothing and contradicts what we know of reality. It’s like conceding that maybe Bertrand’s Teapot really was in orbit in the era before human space exploration.

  7. Max says:

    Chances are, our Universe is a simulation of a simulation of a simulation anyway, since there are probably more simulations of universes with intelligent life than there are such universes.
    The programmer is very much outside the simulated universe, and is indistinguishable from God. Our universe doesn’t appear to be controlled by an intelligent agent, but if it were, then scientists would have to figure out the nature of God, what God wants, etc. They’d be theologians.

    • tmac57 says:

      Makes you wonder what’s really going on during all those colonoscopies doesn’t it? I sure don’t remember anything ;)

  8. Explicit Atheist says:

    Michael Shermer argues “It is simply a matter of what philosophers of science call methodological naturalism, or the process of employing only natural explanations for natural phenomena.”

    I completely disagree. Science is about discovering what is true about how our universe works. If divine revelation given to those who worship a particular deity in a particular way was the method that worked then science would adopt methodological supernaturalism and scientists would be people who devote themselves to obtaining revelations about how the world works by worshipping that deity that way. Mr. Coyne, Stenger, and Dawkins are correct, science a- priori presumes nothing and rules nothing in or out. Science is completely pragmatic and will adopt any methodologies and any conclusions that are successful. Success is the only criteria that defines what is scientific and what is not, both up-front with methodologies and down-back with conclusions.

  9. Retired Prof says:

    As Archie Clebberdale says, “this is more about semantics and definitions than anything else.” With that acknowledgement, though, it is worth considering Max’s idea that that we may be embedded in “a simulation of a simulation of a simulation.”

    In that case, what we experience as Nature would be entirely confined to the simulation in which we play our roles. Whatever ETI created the simulation would be outside it, and therefore supernatural–that is, completely unknowable, inaccessible, and irrelevant to our experience, since neither our behavior nor our supplications could placate it. As Ed Lazda says above, “For all practical purposes, it does not exist.”

    However, the possibility of it does improve certain beer parties by doing what Clebberdale mentions: it “keep[s] philosophy students entertained.”

    • Archie Clebberdale says:

      If the ETI would behave like a god and listen in on our conversations and muck about with the contents of the simulated world, they’d cease to be supernatural (as far as I’m concerned).
      Now what if the ETI doesn’t do that, but… we somehow figure out that at some low, low level nature rounds all numbers to a fixed number of bits.
      Or what if we manage to exploit a bug in the simulator and run a SQL injection attack against it?
      Would the supernatural cease to be supernatural? Or was the simulator not supernatural in the first place, but just an unknown part of the natural world?
      (I don’t think it actually matters as long as we all agree on what’s going on in the various scenarios, which may mean that the word ‘supernatural’ is useless.)

  10. Daniel says:

    If we were to discover the burning bush somewhere, would that be enough to prove the existence of a supernatural deity?

    • MadScientist says:

      Of course not – the bush would have to be extensively studied first. These days many people look forward to watching predicted meteor showers; a few hundred years ago those celestial displays were signs sent by the gods and the gods were saying “we need more money”. Studying the phenomena revealed that the clergy were simply lying money-grubbing worms; unfortunately they were all long dead before the truth was revealed (and not revealed by any gods either).

    • Explicit Atheist says:

      Conclusions must be based on the direction of the overall weight of all available empirical evidences. A single anomaly is unlikely to suffice. It’s like gravity or evolution, we need a very consistent and pervasive collection of evidences over a long period of time. In our universe we have consistent and pervasive support for naturalism and atheism, so to justify belief in supernaturalism and theism we would need something akin to a universe that exhibite properties which were the opposite of those of the universe we live in. There are many possibilities for such a universe, it could, for example, be a universe where scientific knowledge was obtained from a deity by worshipping that deity according to that deity’s instructions, where all objects in motion came to a stop unless the deity kept them in motion, where stars burned nothing but gave off light and heat that the deity provided, where all species suddenly appeared by a single act of creation by the deity a few thousands of years ago, etc.

  11. dr. roxtar says:

    Sean Carrol spoke on this subject at TAM 2012. The video is available on YouTube. He makes the case for the non-existence of the supernatural far more eloquently than I.

  12. Udaybhanu Chitrakar says:

    Science has not yet answered this question

    Is light placed within space and time? Or, are space and time placed within light? Our common sense will say that the first statement is true, that is, the light is placed within space and time. Anything or anyone placed within space and time cannot have any lack of them if not artificially deprived of them. I do not know how anyone or anything can be artificially deprived of time, but I can describe how someone or something can be deprived of space. When a prisoner is put inside a prison cell, he is not fully deprived of space, because there will still be some space left within the four walls of the prison cell. Now let us suppose that instead of putting the prisoner inside a prison cell we put him inside a cage all the three sides of which are adjustable. That is, we can reduce the length, breadth and height of the cage, and we reduce all the three sides of the cage in such a way that ultimately the prisoner fails to make any movement lengthwise, breadthwise as well as from bottom to top. In such a situation we can say that we have artificially made the prisoner spaceless. So the general truth is that anyone or anything placed within space and time cannot have any lack of space and time if not artificially deprived of them. Or we can say that anyone or anything placed within space and time cannot naturally have any lack of space and time. As like everyone and everything else light is also placed within space and time, so the above statement will be true for light also. That is, light being placed within space and time cannot naturally have any lack of them. In the last sentence the word “naturally” is most important.

    But in the real world we find that light being placed within space and time and not being in any artificial way deprived of them still lacks both space and time. It does not have any space to move, and it does not have any time to move. As per relativity theory for light any distance it has to travel is for some unknown reason mysteriously reduced to zero, and ultimately it is left with no distance to travel. In case light has to travel an infinite distance, then also it will fail to make any movement, because as per relativity theory again that infinite distance will simply be contracted to zero, and thus the light will again have no distance left that it will have to travel. As if some outside agent does not want that light ever make any movement. That is why it always sees that whenever any occasion arises that light has to travel some distance, in each and every occasion, and without any exception, that distance is contracted in such a way that ultimately light is left with no distance to travel.

    Whatever I have written in the last paragraph about distance is also true about time. As per relativity theory again light does not have any time to travel. As if that outside agent does not want to give light any time to make any movement. Let us suppose that light has to travel an infinite distance. Our common sense says that with its speed of 300,000 km/sec light will take an eternity to travel that distance. But that outside agent will again play such trick that this total time of an eternity will simply be reduced to zero time for light so that ultimately it will be left with no time to make any movement.

    So long as relativity theory will remain true, whatever I have written in the last two paragraphs will also remain true.

    Now what I want to say is this: These two very peculiar and exceptional properties of light, i.e., light being placed within space and time, and not in any way being artificially deprived of them, but still showing as if it has no space and time to make any movement, cannot naturally arise in light. Yes, I am again repeating this: these two properties of light cannot naturally arise in it. If scientists can explain how these two properties of light have arisen in it without invoking any kind of god, then of course there is no God. But if they fail to do so, then we will have to think otherwise.