Many scientists used to think that heat was the product of a material called phlogiston. It flowed into objects to make them hot and out to make them cold. But when they tested for this material, they could find nothing — objects weighed the same both hot and cold. Defenders of the theory insisted that phlogiston must be made of a material that, unlike all others, had no mass. Finding that heat is actually a result of the movement of molecules, phlogiston defenders suggested that making molecules move is just how phlogiston makes objects hotter. But they were only making ad hoc excuses to save their theory; there was no need to introduce phlogiston — it didn’t explain anything. Heat could be accounted for solely by the movement of molecules and atoms; no extra substance was needed. All the work that phlogiston was supposed to have done was now accounted for by other means. Of course, one can never disprove the existence of phlogiston — one can always make excuses. But, as we know, that is not a good reason to accept a theory. It fell out of favor, and those who held onto it were behaving unscientifically.
We used to explain our mental life and our ability to act in the world with reference to the soul — a substance separable from the body in which thinking occurred, emotions were felt, and decisions were made. Borrowed from Plato, it was the prevailing theory throughout all Christianity for most of its history, and is still the majority view among Christians to this day. Aquinas argued that the soul must exist because no bodily organ can be responsible for thinking. But when we measured for the existence of the soul we did not find it; the body did not get lighter after death. It was declared that the substance of which the soul is made must have no mass. But neuroscience then found that Aquinas was wrong; all of the things that the soul supposedly did — thinking, emotions, decisions, etc. — were accomplished by activity in the brain. They even found that when certain parts of the brain cease to function, the correlated mental functions cease as well — they don’t continue on in a “separable substance.”
Some religious thinkers, aware of such evidence, continued to believe by changing their theory — “making neurons fire is just how the soul interacts with the body.” But the firing of neurons can be accounted for wholly by natural physical processes. There is no reason to introduce the soul into any theory — it doesn’t explain anything. The existence of all mental activity is accounted for by brain activity. All the work that was supposed to have been done by the soul is now accounted for by other means. Of course, one can never disprove the existence of the soul — one can always make excuses. But, as we know, that is not a good reason to accept such a notion. It fell out of favor in the scientific world, and those who hold onto it are being just as unscientific as those that still believe in phlogiston. Christianity’s continued belief in the soul is wholly unscientific.
Lizard Aliens and Belief in God
Some people believe that super-intelligent aliens are secretly controlling every aspect of the world. David Icke has written multiple books on the topic. He professes evidence and knowledge of their existence, and knowledge of what they are like — they are lizards. Of course, they don’t want us to know they exist — so they hide themselves (by making themselves look human). But they are running the world nonetheless. Skeptics point out that it doesn’t seem that the world is run by super-intelligent aliens. If they are striving for peace and equality, they are not doing a bang up job. If they are trying to bring us down, they are not doing a very good job either — we advance significantly all the time. But, of course, despite the fact that he’s written multiple books on the subject of what the aliens are like and what they want, Icke claims we cannot fully understand the reasoning and rationale of our alien overlords. They are beyond us! Who knows what they want the world to look like, or what their ultimate goals are. So the fact that it seems to us that the world is not run by aliens is no reason to think it is not. A world run by lizard aliens is, Icke argues, indistinguishable from one run by humans, so he is justified in believing that it is run by lizard aliens.
Of course, such thinking is wholly unscientific. For one, like all conspiracy theories, it is untestable. Aliens run the world to make it look like it is run by humans, so if the theory is true, the world would look exactly like it would if the theory was false (i.e., if the world was run by humans). And anything that did seem to be evidence against the theory would just be touted as evidence planted by the aliens to throw us off track, and thus claimed as evidence for the theory. As such, the theory is unfalsifiable; it’s not merely that one can always make ad-hoc excuses to save the theory (which one can do with any theory); the ad-hoc excuses are built into the theory before you can even go out and look for evidence. The theory makes evidence irrelevant. It is thus unscientific. In addition, it is not the preferable theory because it is not simple; it interjects far more entities than necessary for explanatory purposes — secret aliens, plots, and powers. In fact, it is more complicated than the thing it aims to explain: the organization of world powers. In addition, the alien theory does not increase our understanding — how they are pulling this off is left unexplained. The purely human theory, however, leaves nothing unexplained, is simpler, and is falsifiable.
Christians believe that the world is designed and run by God, and that God is perfectly loving and powerful. Theists like Thomas Aquinas have written tomes arguing for the existence of God that also describe what God is like. Of course, God doesn’t want us to know for sure that he exists — so he hides himself. But he designed and runs the world, nevertheless. Atheists, however, point to evil in the world as good evidence that God did not design, and is not running, the universe; this is not the kind of universe a perfectly loving and powerful being would create. The religious retort is familiar and simple. “Despite the fact that we have written tomes that describe what God is like, God is completely incomprehensible. One cannot understand his motivations or reasons, or know what he really wants the world to look like. God is beyond us.” So the fact that it doesn’t look like God designed and runs the world is no reason to think that he doesn’t. A world run and designed by no one is, theists argue, indistinguishable from one that is run and designed by God. So Thomas Aquinas and theists like him think they are justified in believing that it is run and designed by God.
Such thinking is unscientific. For one, like conspiracy theories, it is untestable. Since God hides himself and runs the world in a way that is indistinguishable from one that is run by no one, no observation could ever be made to confirm the theory. In fact, nothing — including the most horrendous evil (like the entire world being destroyed) — could not be explained away by God’s incomprehensibility. As such, the theory is unfalsifiable in the same way conspiracy theories are. It has its ad-hoc excuses built into it. The theory makes evidence irrelevant and is thus unscientific.
In addition, it is not the preferable theory because it is not simple; it interjects more entities than is necessary for explanation. In fact, it might be said to be the most non-simple of theories; the entity it interjects is infinite in all respects and thus demands more explanation that anything else; contrarily, what it seeks to explain — the singularity from which the universe began — seems to be (if anything is) something that requires no explanation (it is something that literally exists nowhere, in no space, for no time). Lastly, the God theory does not increase our understanding — how did God create the universe, how do his powers work, why does he exist? All of this is left unexplained. Since the natural theory is simpler, testable, and answers more questions than it raises, it is the scientifically preferable theory. Belief in God, especially given the way theists defend such belief from the problem of evil, is unscientific.
Sathya Sai Baba and Jesus of Nazareth
In India, there was a man named Sathya Sai Baba, who claimed to be a man-god, the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi (who himself claimed to be an incarnation of Shiva). To reinforce his man-god status, he repeatedly performed “miracles” in front of giant crowds of people. The complete list is far too long to mention here, but included healings, making objects appear from nowhere, miracles of “omnipresence,” turning water into petrol, and raising people from the dead. Eyewitnesses to his miracles abound, are still living today, and proudly pronounce they believe as a result. Both he and his followers have written about his miracles and teaching and do charity work. Although it is difficult to get an exact count on his followers, they number in the millions.
Of course, even if one is unable to see his miracles, or travel to India in person, one can still come to a scientific conclusion about the legitimacy of his miracles and his claims. To do so, we must consider multiple hypotheses that account for the known evidence — the reports about his miracles — and accept the most adequate one. One hypothesis is that he does what, and is who, he claims: a man-god performing supernatural miracles. Another hypothesis is that he is a fraud. He uses illusions and sleight of hand to pull off his miracles and depends on the reliable gullibility of people to not see through them. He takes advantage of people’s ignorance to convince them of his divine status. An uneducated Indian could easily mistake an illness for death and believe the ill person resurrected after Baba touched them when in fact the ill person was already going to make a natural recovery. To boot, the stories could simply be made up — either exaggerated accounts of non-miraculous occurrences, or fabrications out of whole cloth.
Which hypothesis is most adequate? The fraud hypothesis is clearly simpler — it involves no supernatural powers or god-like attributes. In addition, it is conservative (it coheres with what we already know) and increases our understanding while answering more questions than it raises. If he is divine, we have no idea how his powers work; but we do know how magic tricks work, and with very little research can discover how they are done. We also know that people often believe, and even see, what they want to believe — so it is not surprising that, even if the tricks are badly done, people still believe. Even if you were to go on youtube and find videos of Sathya Sai Baba performing his miracles, and you couldn’t explain how he did them,you would still not be able to scientifically conclude that he is a god-man.The fact that you can’t figure out how a magician does his tricks is not good evidence to think he really uses magic; your inability to prove something false is not a good reason to think it is true. So too, your inability to explain how Sathya Sai Baba does a “miracle” is no reason to think it is miraculous. We also know that doctors and hospitals to confirm a death are not abundant in India, and so thinking a sick relative is dead, when they are not, is common. Our ability to confirm death is a recent and western development. We know that stories about charismatic people, and unusual occurrences, are most often exaggerated and, in their final form, do not actually represent what happened during the original event. The scientific conclusion is obviously that he is not a god-man.
Yet change the name from “Sai Baba,” to “Jesus,” and Christians will come to the exact opposite conclusion. The miracles that Jesus performed, if not identical to those of Sathya Sai Baba, are those that have been performed by magicians for countless centuries. In fact, the evidence for Jesus’ miracles and divine status is even weaker than the evidence for Sathya Sai Baba’s. We have living eyewitness and videos of Sathya Sai Baba’s miracles; we only have third hand accounts, written by non-eye-witnesses, thirty years after the fact that have been unreliably copied for 2000 years, for Jesus. First century Palestine had no hospitals, and even less education and more ignorance than modern India. First century Palestinians were thus much more likely to mistake illness for death, spread false and exaggerated stories (and believe them), and be susceptible to the biases of expectation and wishful thinking thus seeing what they wished to believe. The number of followers Sathya Sai Baba had during his lifetime is even greater; Jesus’ biggest crowd was 5000, Sathya Sai Baba’s is in the millions. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Sathya Sai Baba has more followers than even lived in first century Palestine.
Obviously, there are at least two hypotheses to consider here — that Jesus was a god-man, and that Jesus was a charismatic man about whom stories were exaggerated. Clearly, the latter is the most scientific. In the same ways as before, it is simpler, more conservative, and answers more questions than it raises. Christian belief in the miracles, and divine status, of Jesus is wholly unscientific.
In the first chapter of his new book, How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman points out that Jesus was only one among many who, during his time, were thought to be god and to have performed many miracles (such as raising and being raised from the dead). The Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius is mentioned specifically as an example of such a person who predated Jesus. Interestingly, early Church apologists didn’t deny that persons like Apollonius had performed miracles; instead, they claimed that their powers had a demonic origin, instead of a godly one. This is not surprising, given the unscientific world they lived in.
Of course today we live in a scientific world, and Christians today are likely to say the same thing about Apollonius as they do about Sathya Sai Baba: the stories concerning their miracles are false. And that is the scientific conclusion. What they fail to realize however, is to be consistent (and scientific) one must draw the same conclusion about the stories of Jesus’ miracles.