27 November 2005

Thought experiment of the day

I really must get round to posting something that isn’t a Dilbert Blog comment. But every morning I awaken, check my mail, and trundle over to Scott Adam’s place and read his latest wind-up. And a fine way to start the day it is too. Here’s an extract from today's post, followed by my comment.

Imagine that lightning suddenly carves into the side of the Washington Monument the words “I am God. I created you. Darwin was a nut.” And let’s say there are hundreds of witnesses who all have video cameras and capture it from multiple angles. Now imagine that the same phenomenon repeats every day for a month, each time on a different monument. Scientists study the phenomena and conclude that humans probably didn’t cause it, but beyond that, there are no further scientific clues about how lighting could seem so directed. If I crafted my thought experiment right, no one would have any idea how to devise a test that would confirm or exclude the possibility that God really did it. Hypothetically, being omnipotent and all, he would be capable of leaving no clues, other than signing his name. Therefore, any speculation as to the cause is not science. Here’s the question: Should teachers be allowed to tell science students about the lightning messages?

My (typically long) comment:

I remember one of my philosophy lecturers saying that, if someone presented him with a seemingly flawless argument for the existence of God, he still wouldn’t go away and start believing in God. Rather, he would expect that the flaw in the argument would become apparent to him sometime later.

My guess is that something similar would happen with your thought experiment: the mere signature, with lack of proof as to whether it was a hoax or the real thing, would lead most scientists to still treat it with the utmost suspicion. The dogmatists would say, it’s a hoax, because God doesn’t exist, and we’ll find a proof soon - remember crop circles? More cautious ones might say, we just don’t know, but that we’ll keep looking for an answer to the phenomenon.

God would find it very difficult to prove His existence to unbelievers in this day and age, I think. Merely leaving us The Commandments, vol. 2 would not impress many people. He’d have to make a public appearance at the very least.

As for the question of whether the phenomenon should be discussed (I notice that you didn’t use the word ‘teach’, and hope that ‘discuss’ is an acceptable paraphrase of ‘tell’) in school, well, why not? But if so, it would undoubtedly end up in the ‘Unexplained, because it's probably a hoax’ box, alongside the Loch Ness Monster.

However, I don’t ever remember being told about Nessie at school, but only encountered ‘her’ on pseudo-documentaries on TV. And I don’t recall ever being told about UFOs or crop circles, either. Because most schools are conservative places where the teachers teach what they’ve always taught. Very few teachers actually discuss current affairs with their pupils, preferring to wait until the subject enters the curriculum, or the canon of acceptable text-books. I know, I’m a teacher.

So I think it could be talked about, but it would be categorised as ‘unexplained’ at best, and even if some reactionary scientists were loudly proclaiming the existence of God as the only possible explanation, only reactionary teachers would actually let that affect what they actually considered teaching in class.

And here’s another thought: if the noise got loud enough, what’s the chance that proof that it was all a hoax would be found from somewhere? Did anyone meet the guys purported to have made the crop circles? God deciding to show up would be a major inconvenience, and Jesus would end up in the loony bin, or safely locked away in a maximum security prison in Iraq.

So my telling of the thought experiment would be this: God leaves His signature on monuments all over the USA; this causes a major media uprising of


  • people claiming it’s true;
  • people claiming it’s baloney;
  • people claiming it’s terrorists;
  • people of other religions claiming that they are victims of religious persecution;
  • people of other religions praying for their God to do the same;
  • people claiming it was aliens;
  • people claiming that they did it - for 15 minutes of fame; and so on.

Then the media blitz would die down as we move on to the discovery of a breed of shark which seems to have developed legs, and eventually a scapegoat (sorry, proof based on legitimate science) would be found. It would be a couple of desperate comedians from Cleveland, or something, and none of us would be any the wiser.

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