Atheists: What Proof Do You Want?

I ask this question in all seriousness. What proof do atheists and agnostics seek when they say they want proof of God? I’ve asked a couple (most notably a blogger on here named truelogic) but haven’t really received an answer, so if an atheist or agnostic could clear it up for me I’d be very grateful!

Is it physical proof? If so then do you really think that physical facts are the only things which exist? As one example of why I don’t believe that physical facts are all that exists I refer to Frank Jackson’s “Black and White Mary” case, which can be found in his paper “Epiphenomenal Qualia” ( it first appeared in Philosophical Quarterly, 32 (1982), pp. 127-36) and for further reference would point to Thomas Nagel’s “What is it Like To Be a Bat?.  But, on to the thought experiment, and I quote it word for word:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’,‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence‘The sky is blue’. (It can hardly be denied that it is in principle possible to obtain all this physical information from black and white television, otherwise the Open University would of necessity need to use color television.)

What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

Clearly the same style of Knowledge argument could be deployed for taste, hearing, the bodily sensations and generally speaking for the various mental states which are said to have (as it is variously put) raw feels, phenomenal features or qualia. The conclusion in each case is that the qualia are left out of the physicalist story. And the polemical strength of the Knowledge argument is that it is so hard to deny the central claim that one can have all the physical information without having all the information there is to have.

Is Jackson wrong? What other kind of evidence do you seek? A personal (subjective) experience?

I want to thank you all before hand for your comments!


6 responses to “Atheists: What Proof Do You Want?

  • shamelesslyatheist

    OK, I’ll bite. Clearly, Jackson is wrong. His central thesis seems to be a ‘burden of proof’ problem and gets it backwards. Scientists (myself included) do not deny that there are things which we have not (yet) observed. However, it is impossible to speak knowledgeably (or even at all) about that with which we have not observed. In the above example, Mary knew only about the room she was in. To speculate what was outside the room or even if there was an outside would have been irrational for her, whether it existed or not. Once released from the room she was free to expand on the knowledge she already had. Physicalism is clearly not false but limited to what is possible to observe. But I know of no other way of knowing that doesn’t boil down to (as David Hume put it) ‘sophistry and illusion’. Merely acknowledging a possibility that there is some kind of god is not sufficient to remove my atheism since it is only said to preserve intellectual honesty and not because I feel that there is any real possibility that gods exist. It is simply that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of a thing. To believe in something just because it might just possibly exist smacks of Pascal’s ridiculous Wager and is put into the proper context when Bertrand Russell’s Cosmic Teapot is considered.

    In the case of religion, there is absolutely nothing to distinguish between a universe where there is the supernatural and one without. Since the null hypothesis is that there are no deities, and no physical evidence for a deity or deities is to be had, the provisional conclusion is to maintain the null hypothesis.

    In Mary’s case, if someone made the claim to her that there was an outside it is not Mary’s problem to disprove the claim. It is on the CLAIMANT to provide positive evidence in support. And this is where Jackson goes wrong. Jackson has absolute knowledge in regards to the existence of an exterior to Mary’s room. But none of us (and I mean NONE of us…) are in Jackson’s position. We are all Marys. So, to claim knowledge of existence that we simply do not have is simply invalid.

    To paraphrase Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and since this is a whopper of a claim, it had better be incredibly good stuff. To be honest, I do not know what form such evidence would take, only that I haven’t seen it yet. It would need to be something which directly establishes cause and effect with a supernatural agent being the cause. Certainly not the usual ‘how else do you explain X?’ kind of thing. Other responders will have different requirements, I’m sure. But for me it must be empirical or nothing.

  • A Pilgrim

    The point of the B&W Mary case isn’t that there was something outside the room that she didn’t know about, but rather that even though she knew all the physical facts about seeing color, i.e. that light at a certain wavelength produces this color etc etc. She had actually never seen the color.

    No matter how much she new about the physical facts once she experiened it it could be said that she learned something new, so even though she knew every single physical fact, she did not know everything there was to know about it. Does that make sense?

    However you did answer my question a little by saying that you weren’t sure exactly what kind of evidence would be required. You do say that it must be empirical or nothing though, so I suppose would need some personal, subjective evidence before you would believe?

    Thanks for your response!

  • scaryreasoner

    Proof? How about we start with just evidence.

    The stories we’re asked to believe appear purposely designed such that there can be no evidence for them.

    So to ask, “what evidence would satisfy you?” about such stories is a trick question. Go fuck yourself, dipshit. If you can’t figure it out, it means you’re stupid.

  • A Pilgrim

    Thank you scaryreasoner for proving your reasoning ability by intelligently answering the question at hand.

    [/end sarcasm]

  • mogglas

    Ok, you wanted my opinion and here it is 🙂 The proof I want, is actual PROOF. I want to say: “God, If you make it start raining frogs, I will believe in you, and I will go to church every day, and I will pray, and I will do good things, I will do anything for you, God” and then have it start raining frogs. That’s the type of miracle I need to believe in god.

    If god wants you to believe in him so much, why wont he just come down to earth and say “Okay, I’m here! I actually exist! This is why I did this and this is why I did that. Will you all just believe in me now?”?

    I would elaborate on the subject, but I just pulled an all nighter for no reason and I have to sleep. But thanks for asking for my opinion!

  • Tony Ducket$ Interesting theories in that site, as for God I agree that nobody is in the posistion of Jackson, there is no way to know. I’m leaning twords no God or gods, but would like there to be one. I dig the Hindu belief in brahman, Taoism is good too, but nothing beats the scientific method, if God is real, eventually science will lead us to him, if he isn’t science will eventually prove it, either way science will always lead us to the truth and it is the lamp of knowledge.

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