How Can We Investigate God’s Existence?

I’ve given a lot of thought to how and what I would or could do to discover whether or not God or gods exist.  The following video clip covers a lot of my own thoughts regarding this:

In my own search, I’ve given thought to all of the possible evidences discussed in that video (my own experience, investigations into the testimonies of others, and “a priori” arguments) and in the search for gods my own conclusion is that they all fall short for me to conclude that they exist.  As I’ve said before I know I’m not perfect and I am fully aware that there are other people who conclude differently, and some of those theists have also investigated using the very same types of evidential investigations.  I believe they are being as honest as they know how, but I simply come to different conclusions.  Too often all of us are too quick to judge people with opposing viewpoints as dishonest because we just cannot fathom how they can honestly  disagree with us.  Granted there are some who are disagreeing because of a hidden agenda, but I personally feel that this is not the norm.  I don’t believe that thinking about things of this nature is anywhere near as simple as some like to make it out to be, and that is just one of several reasons for the name of my blog.  Falling into wrong thinking, confirmation bias, trusting misinformation, or even just understandable lack of desire to delve deep into thinking about these kinds of frustrating subjects can lead all of us down incorrect roads.  In my mind this is all the more reason that when it comes to ultimate questions we should apply rational thinking and objective investigations with all the strict rigors that are applied in all fields of knowledge in universities across the world.

Wishing everyone a very happy New Year!

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22 thoughts on “How Can We Investigate God’s Existence?

  1. Thanks.

    That’s pretty much why I am not religious. There’s no way that I could tell whether there’s a God. But, therefore, it doesn’t matter. If it makes no difference whether or not there is a god, I might as well live my life by ignoring the question.

    I’m never quite sure whether that makes me athiest, agnostic, or merely non-religious. But I don’t think that matters either.

  2. Hey Neil – that’s very much the point of view of my wife and I can totally respect that. In fact I think it is a healthier point of view than my own, because in some sense I continue to contemplate questions that are likely never able to be properly answered (at least in my lifetime). I think some might call you an “apatheist”, but labels never tell the whole story.

  3. Atheism is passive. Anti-Theism is active. I count myself more in the Anti-Theist camp because as a Humanist I cannot, in good conscience, tolerate the regressive nature of false belief.

  4. Hi Howie, interesting thoughts and interesting video. I agree with you that we should avoid drawing demeaning conclusions about people who disagree with us, but (you won’t be surprised!) I think we can do better than you or the video think.

    1. Using the terms in the video, a priori arguments can only take us so far, but I think that is a fair distance. For me, the best approach is to postulate several different realities and draw conclusions about them, and then ask which of these is closest to what we know and experience. For me, the answer is clear. If there was no God, I’d expect there to be no universe, certainly not a designed universe,, certainly not rational, autonomous, ethical, conscious beings. Whereas if there is a God, these things are quite explicable. So the universe and what we experience and know about it make more sense on the assumption God exists than on the assumption that he doesn’t (IMO).

    2. To know a person in the same culture as us requires them to talk to us – otherwise we see only the outside. So to know God, whose culture and nature, if he exists, must be very different than ours, must also require him to take some initiative. So the second part of the investigation must be to look to see if he has indeed communicated. I think the historical facts about Jesus suggest that he has, and the many medically documented healing miracles, the visions and the various experiences of God reinforce this conclusion.

    3. This much is available to both you and I equally, so we then have to consider why we still conclude differently. I suggest there may be several reasons (may not all apply to you, but I think apply to some people):

    (a) Many unbelievers set the evidence bar too high (just as many believers set it too low). Whatever belief is the most probable is the one we should follow, at least until we get more information.
    (b) Many unbelievers make assumptions about how God “should” act rather than look at reality and ask whether God could reasonably have acted that way. (The two can give different answers.)
    (c) What we want, what we’ve grown up with, and the experiences good or bad we’ve had of religion, can all influence us extremely.
    (d) Have we “asked and kept on asking” for God to reveal himself? Some unbelievers have, many have not.

    So, for what it’s worth, that’s my perspective. Best wishes for the new year!

  5. Hey John – I agree with your assessment of anti-theism being active, and you can probably tell I’m not quite anti-theist. I don’t have a problem with people filling in gaps of knowledge with some kind of spiritual beliefs if it makes them feel better. However, there are definitely cases where I share in your feelings – especially when those who fill in the gaps harm other people as a result (which has happened too often in the past and still happens in some religions today). Other problems I have are: when theists cannot respect others who don’t see the need to fill in gaps of knowledge with an answer (saying “I don’t know” just makes more sense to me) and when forward progress in knowledge is impeded because of the stubborn need to hold on to long held traditions which don’t match up with evidence.

  6. With the limited mind that we humans have, we cannot possibly conclude that an all powerful being absolutely cannot exist.

  7. Hey Eric – oh boy, way too much that I disagree with. What to do. I’ll just give it my best shot at giving my own perspective. And as I think you know I agree with talking about this stuff in probabilities rather than certainties. Just as you try to make best guesses at what would be likely I try the same (so I don’t see a problem as you do with your 3(b) – I’m just trying my best to guess at what would seem likely if gods existed).
    For me the existence of things like gods, ghosts, daemons, fairies, alien ufo’s, etc. are all possible, but yet all suffer from the big drawback that they are so hidden. They clearly cannot be sensed in any way near the way that we sense the existence of people, and they cannot even be detected with any kind of scientific instrument that we have invented to detect hidden things. When properly controlled investigations are done they fall short as well.
    The particular God of traditional monotheism (personal omni-God) fails even worse in this regard because He is typically described as a God who desires relationship with all of His creation. For me this has always been by far the most damaging fact for the omni-God hypothesis. The problem of evil while also quite damaging pales in comparison to this in my own mind (and I know other atheists may not agree with that, but this is my perspective I’m giving).
    In proper investigations of the existence of an entity we would listen to the testimonies of people and see if the descriptions of the entity match. When it comes to gods this is another significant hurdle for me. Descriptions of gods vary so much not only across the world but even within certain religions. Sure there may be similarities here and there but the variances way outweigh those for me. Many of these gods including Jehovah were regional gods that people were not aware of outside of those regions. This also is a very telling fact for me.

    This God is also typically described as a mind outside of space-time, yet the very process of thinking minds are dependent on the process of time – we think as time moves. The idea of a mind outside of time is incoherent to me. Even saying something like “He always existed” seems meaningless because the word “always” implies a time reference. If there is such a thing as entities existing outside of space-time then at this point our best conclusion should be that we simply don’t know anything about them. This is what fits best for me and if it turns out there is a God who expects something of me and if He is virtuous then I would guess He would understand that perspective.

    And if a personal omni-God does exist then He would be quite aware that humans have found out that objective methods such as the scientific method are very trustworthy in finding out things about reality. An omni-God would have all powers to use that to His advantage to show Himself, yet He does not. Another telling fact. In fact some investigations even seem to falsify God’s existence. It seems to me that the study described in that link would have been an absolutely awesome opportunity for a god to show itself to the world – and simple too – just heal everyone who was prayed to. This is why the American Cancer Society has stated that the evidence is simply not there for faith healings.

    So no I cannot in any way agree that the answer is clear. To me the scales tip the other way.

    And biases exist for everyone, so “suggestions” similar to your point 3 about why people could believe wrong things could be listed for anyone. I prefer discussing the evidence instead. And your 3(a) actually is where I have given a lot of thought. The fact that we all have biases is the reason why we should all set the evidence bar high for all claims – to the same level that we expect from the medical community on research of drugs and procedures.

    Oh and 3(d) is a trap – let’s ask over and over again until a coincidence occurs to prove it – this does not seem like the proper way to find truth.

    Sorry I couldn’t find things to agree with here, but I do hope you had a great Christmas and I wish you and yours the best for the new year as well!

  8. Hey Noel – good to see you again. You won’t get any argument from me on that one – “absolute certainty” is something I don’t believe humans can conclude for the affirmative or negative on ultimate questions. Happy New Year!

  9. Hi Howie, I think your response illustrates how much two reasonable people (let’s be gracious to each other!) can disagree. Having said my piece, I see little point in pursuing the arguments. But I am interested in the reasons for such difference.

    I am interested in the two of my four reasons that you chose to comment on. We simply disagree on (a) – in most of life, whether it is reacting to an emergency, choosing a job, in fact making almost any choice, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until we get a very high level of certainty (setting the bar high), and it generally makes sense to give as much consideration as we can, then go with what we think is best and adjust as we go. e.g. that is often how environmental management has to be done when there’s insufficient date but no time to lose). I think making too much of a difference about God could be a major difference between us. Likewise on (d) – I’m not suggesting we keep on asking in a mind-numbing way, but I do suggest we need to keep investigating and asking – and adjusting.

    I think those two comments show up some fairly fundamental differences between us, and I think it has been useful to explore them.

    One other brief comment. Whenever the subject of divine healing arises, you can almost bet that (1) a sceptic will quote the study you quoted, and (2) they won’t consider any others. I have researched this matter at some length, and found over 20 competent studies. The majority (about 2-1) find positive results, and the one you quoted (admittedly the most comprehensive) is the most negative. I have documented the lot at Intercessory prayer and healing. So the picture is much muddier than most sceptics are willing to investigate or admit.

    Further, these studies are largely irrelevant. Studies can only prove what their methodology allows. In this cases, they are testing whether prayer works in some psychological (i.e. naturalistic) way across a large number of patients. But while that is interesting, it has little to do with God. The claim (by me and other christians) is that God sometimes intervenes dramatically, a very different claim than the one these studies test. The only methodology that will test that rare event is to check the medical evidence for unusual healings and whether the person was prayed for, and do a statistical analysis. I have done that too (to the extent available to me) and the results are somewhat shocking – see Miracles and probability: the adventures of a maths nerd.

    That is the relevant claim and evidence. Thanks for your time. Best wishes.

  10. Hey Uncle E – I like being gracious as you know. If I talk strong it is just to put some balance to some strong wording that you’ve used that I personally don’t agree with. It’s not meant to insult you.

    You’ve touched on a whole lot of important items that you may know are key points of my blog if you’ve been reading along. I can’t be both comprehensive and brief, so I’ll try to strike some balance.

    I’m not so sure we disagree as much as you think on (a). Firstly, in cases where we have to make decisions (emergencies being the best example), we go with our best guess, but we don’t say “we know that this guess is true”. We pick and realize we could likely be wrong – in those scenarios I at least feel most comfortable saying I don’t know, but have to pick. In the case of believing in God I believe I’ve weighed the evidence and arguments as best I can and at this point lean toward doubting as I’ve said in our discussion on my definitions page. I’m not suggesting that we set the bar higher than what we do in normal scenarios – I’m suggesting we use the same weights and measures regarding evidence as we all would expect in other studies (medical research being a good example). I don’t see why anyone would want to disagree with that. I’m not saying this is easy for any of us to do, especially because this topic is so prone to bias on both sides (thus increasing the reasons to be careful), but this is my goal which I believe to be quite reasonable. (d) is fine – I still investigate many different worldviews.

    Your other “brief” comment is not so brief because it links to quite a bit of your work and I can’t respond to it all in a comment, but I’ll try some:

    – Explaining how skeptics react online to your presentations of healing evidence aren’t helpful – I’m sure you don’t think it’s a good idea to suggest that Christianity is wrong because so many Christians I’ve interacted with on the internet exhibit the same kind of stacking the deck techniques. I don’t suggest that, but I can understand the urge to.
    – I posted 2 links for you not 1, and there are very good reasons that the first link is so commonly quoted. quotes from that link: “it is the most scientifically rigorous investigation of whether prayer can heal illness, the study, begun almost a decade ago and involving more than 1,800 patients, has for years been the subject of speculation.”, “The new study was rigorously designed to avoid problems like the ones that came up in the earlier studies”.
    – The second link was the statement by the American Cancer Society about the evidence simply not being there, and even details the possible dangers of faith healing belief.
    – I looked at the 4 distant healing studies of your “positive” list because those have a better chance of eliminating placebo effect, and all of them admitted to not being able to rule out placebo effect, and one even concluded that distant healing did not show positive results. (Nuremberg ethical laws require people to at least know the kind of study they are in which explains this). Some quotes from the studies you linked to: “The methodologic limitations of several studies make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the efficacy of distant healing”, “No differences in outcome were found between the control and the experimental conditions”. There’s more, but I’m running way long.
    – I honestly believe that there are tons of psychological effects going on here – and in fact the studies explain that those effects can skew either way depending on the type of scenario. It looks to me like several of your positives actually belong in the negative if psychological effects are considered.
    – Even if there is truly some statistically significant result here after ruling out all psychological effects then it would only be showing that something veridical may be going on related to distant prayer or intentions. There are lots of possibilities. Here is just one. Others are discussed in the papers you linked to.
    – Most importantly and why I brought this topic up in the first place is that such unclear results (and where the most careful study is negative) bodes very badly in my analysis of what would be expected if there is a personal omni-God interested in relationship with everyone. So the context of my 2 links was very important.
    – I don’t agree with your conclusion that the skeptic has the harder position to justify, but I do agree that further investigation may possibly be warranted if better methodologies than the Templeton investigation are suggested.
    – I’ve read your second link before and it suffers from the fact that statistical analyses are not good if the data may be questionable. It wasn’t clear that the underlying data was all solid.
    – I would be interested in seeing videos of many debates going into the details of this kind of stuff. It would help to get some honest dialogue on this if it is believed there is a statistical significance. You may want to contact the Templeton group with your analyses.

    By the way my final post in my very slow current series (maybe 4 or 5 posts later) will explain that if I were to return to belief in any form it would be these kinds of arguments. You may be surprised by that post. I’ll keep you in suspense. 😉

    (Makagutu is likely laughing right now because he is quite aware of my inability to be brief. ;-D )

  11. Hi Howie. First an apology ….

    “I like being gracious as you know. If I talk strong it is just to put some balance to some strong wording that you’ve used that I personally don’t agree with. It’s not meant to insult you.”
    I’m sorry, my comment wasn’t in any way intended to be a complaint or a rebuke, or even to refer to anything you had said. You are always gracious. It was just a way of saying that we sometimes wonder how people can disagree with us so strongly, but giving the benefit of the doubt is always good. Sorry my poor wording gave the wrong impression.

    “I’m not so sure we disagree as much as you think on (a). ….. (d) is fine”
    I’m not sure what more to say here, as I think there is an important issue where we think quite differently which we haven’t yet really understood.

    “Explaining how skeptics react online to your presentations of healing evidence aren’t helpful”
    I’m sorry, but that was quite deliberate. When I find a consistent pattern of behaviour, I think it worth pointing out, not just for your sake, but for those reading. It wasn’t like I accused you of something you didn’t do, and implied guilt by association (as your example of pointing out the pecadilloes of fundamentalist christians) – I simply pointed out that it is easy to form views based on what the internet might suggest is good information, but which is incomplete. So I’m sorry if I offended you, I certainly didn’t mean to do that, but I did mean to challenge established thinking on this matter.

    I accept most of what you say about these studies of prayer as a distant therapy. The Templeton study was the most comprehensive single study, but the picture is muddier than it alone suggests. So I agree with being fairly agnostic about the whole question (my page’s conclusion is not very strong), but that wasn’t what your original statement seemed to be doing.

    But my main point is the one about what a study can tell us, and like I said, all these studies say almost nothing about evidence for God – they talk about psychology and emotions and belief, all things affected by God if he exists but possible even if he doesn’t.

    The real question is whether there is evidence that God sometimes intervenes in quite amazing ways that are statistically difficult for medicine to explain. My statistics are a little tongue in cheek, but the point is serious – throw away all the millions of urban myths, fakes and cons, put aside all the stories for which the evidence is too meagre to allow any conclusion, and there is still some excellent evidence for unusual healings. It may be the best evidence of God (though many would disagree no doubt).

    Best wishes.

  12. Hey Uncle E – Oh, no apologies were needed there at all. To be honest I’ve felt our discussions we’ve had on my blog have been on a very good level – we’ve been able to express how we disagree (sometimes strongly) without insult or judgment of “ulterior motives”. To me that is what makes real dialogue.

    I think your latest comment sounded like a good stopping point (unless you’d like to continue). I rather like taking our dialogue in short bursts of maybe just 2 or 3 rounds – it gives time to take a break, relax and reflect and learn. You may be right that there are some differences on your original (a) and (d) points. Perhaps those will come up again in the future.

    I’ll write more in my future post I mentioned, but in short summary this is my own perspective related to what we’ve been discussing here – when I explain to people that the a priori arguments don’t convince me I’m being completely honest, and they weren’t able to help me even while I was fighting so hard inside to remain Christian. But what keeps me at “implicit” rather than “explicit” atheist is the wondering about all the stories of experiences that many have said they have. While I realize there could be naturalistic explanations for all of them I still wonder whether or not our scientific investigations have really fully proven that yet – it seems like it could be that there hasn’t been enough investigations to make a very solid stance (but I could obviously be wrong about that too). My view is more complicated than that, so don’t jump to too many conclusions from that – take care till next time.

  13. Yes, I don’t think long discussions are desirable in blog comments – I just like to point out alternative approaches without arguing. I’m happy to leave it there as you suggest. Thanks.

  14. Late to the discussion, and I don’t know if anybody mentioned the idea in a similar context, but here’s a thought. Instead of posing a question of “Is there a God?” and then researching the evidence to arrive at a conclusion, you could definitely state the hypothesis “There is a God”, and then sift through the data to see if it supports the hypothesis. I don’t think the evidence has ever definitively proved the hypothesis, but I think the evidence suggests a strong enough correlation to keep the hypothesis (a social science approach rather than a mathematical certainty).

    One warning: the data takes years to sift through and collect, since the data must be reexamined in light of the new hypothesis.

  15. Hey Don – welcome back! I always appreciate hearing from you because as I’ve said before I like that you try to think “outside of the boxes”. I totally agree with the method of stating the hypothesis as you have said. In my own thoughts on this I’ve reasoned a little further that for me to examine whether the data fits I have to think about how to be more specific with the statement of the hypothesis. But as you’ve suggested the whole endeavor could be quite time consuming either way. Not only that, but it is a very “murky” endeavor. At this point my own leaning is that hypotheses involving invisible thinking beings that are interacting with our lives not only doesn’t have definitive proof, but doesn’t have near enough proof for me to switch to believing. As I’ve stated before I’m not near 100% certainty on this, but it’s where I lean for sure.

    I find it very interesting that you’ve stated this because just today I read another theist’s post that said “there is a God” is not a hypothesis. You can read it here. But to be fair (which you are probably getting used to the fact that I try my best to be fair but fail), I believe Debilis wasn’t really trying to say that “There is a God” cannot be a hypothesis – I think he’s trying to say it’s not one in the realm of the physical sciences. I kind of disagree a little with that as well though – not that I believe a being outside of our testable space could be scientifically examined, but because believers in God (or gods for that matter) usually believe that God is causing things to happen within our universe, I believe these things can be tested. This is actually a big theme of my blog, and you can see I have several links on the right side of my blog to groups that agree with this. The John Templeton Foundation is a big example – and I believe he leans towards theism (although I don’t know for sure). This is a biggie for me, and I’ve expressed these ideas in a bunch of my blog posts (especially here and here). If we can find answers to “big questions” with the kinds of methods that we’ve found to be quite reliable then I’d be very interested in learning more.

  16. Pfft! I wave my hand at your self-depreciation – you do a great job of being fair, and rarely fail. The difference is simple: you seek to know in earnest, and do not condescend those that disagree with you. I only wish I could engage with your posts more often!

    Thanks for that link (I decided to follow that blog). That was a well-written viewpoint and I would agree with the author and your interpretation of it. As a budding social scientist, I have quickly learned that there are only correlations, in various degrees, never certainties. This is even true in bio-psychology. Before, with the advent of more advanced tools such as fMRI, neuroscience was looking at various brain structures as determining various character traits and mental illness. Now, scientists are beginning to realize that correlation is not necessarily causation: the psyche may be the cause of various brain abnormalities, not visa-versa.

    Mathematicians, scientists engaged in the physical scientists (and even engineers! 😉 ) are accustomed to a certain rigorous demand of proof that proves elusive to subjects such as these. As the author points out, this doesn’t mean that the concepts are false. The best example I can point to for those on the other side of the fence is evolutionary theory. There are those on the theistic side who foolishly argue that, because evolutionary theory cannot be “proven” with mathematical certainty, it is “just a theory”, and should be ignored. That’s just plain stupid: although one cannot apply that level of certainty, there certainly is a strong enough correlation between the various facts to keep the theory as the best working explanation for the phenomenon we see.

    There are concepts (such as God) that lie outside of our ability to test using the tools at are disposal. I think this is the ultimate point of that post. The tools available to us through science are wonderful instruments, useful for a wide range of exploration. But using science to explore the possibility of God is like using a compass to find freshly baked bread.

  17. I left out a very important point in the above response. I think the reason why we struggle to test the cause and effect of God working in the universe is due to two explanations. First, we find it nearly impossible to isolate all the variables on such a grand stage. For every hypothesis advanced as a possible cause, there is a competing hypothesis that is equally viable. Second, when we eliminate all of the claims of divine intervention advanced by charlatans motivated by some other purpose (money, fame, etc), the sample size is too small. The explanations behind that, though, are beyond the scope of this comment section.

  18. Hey Don – thank you very much for the kind words. It’s good to hear others think I do a good job of being fair – I do try my best. You are right, I definitely seek to know in earnest – no doubt about that one. And yes, I see no reason to condescend to people who disagree with me given that I am so cognizant of my ability to be wrong in all areas of my life. I think you know by now you are always welcome to share your ideas on my blog. You were always quite kind to me when I expressed opposing views on your blog. And by the way, you get bonus points in your comment here for using the word “elusive” on my blog! 😉

    That stuff about brains is very intriguing – consciousness is a subject I want to learn much more about but it is such a huge field I haven’t even come close to scratching the surface. I wonder if it may be a 2 directional causal effect going on. I can see how depressive feelings can effect our bodies (and quite likely our brains) in bad ways, and I’ve also read that brain tumors and actually physically touching certain parts of brains can cause differences in personality. Either way I’m nowhere near knowledgable enough to offer useful comments on that.

    I like how you snuck “engineer” in there 😉 (I knew I wanted to be an engineer when I was 9 years old, and it fits me well). Yes, I have definitely pondered the idea that my scientific oriented way of thinking (which I’ve really had all my life) is possibly causing me to “see” things improperly in the realm of ultimate questions. But I’m not so sure of that – there are certainly many people in non-scientific fields who have also doubted the existence of gods – even previous theologians like Bart Ehrman, Gerd Ludemann, Michael Goulder, and many others like those at the Sea of Faith organization. Not saying that makes them right, but just that this doubting goes beyond those in science/math fields. On the flip side though I would venture an educated guess that the doubters are likely skewed percentage-wise toward the scientific minded.

    I also don’t think it is a mistake to require the same kinds of objective weights and measures that we’ve found to be useful in all fields of study. Things like peer review (just one example) are used in all fields – not just the physical sciences. These kinds of rigors have been found useful in all fields of study so that we avoid the mistakes that we’ve made in the past of jumping to conclusions all to quickly.

    In general when it comes to the existence of gods it would take a lot for me to overcome the difficulty of the undetectability issue (what the experts like to coin as “divine hiddenness”). That just my own take on it.

    You have some very excellent points though Don – especially your final comment about the huge difficulties involved in testing cause and effects of the God hypothesis. In my mind this is at least a good enough reason to claim agnosticism, and for me given all the considerations I feel it is fair to claim implicit atheism.

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