(This is an exploration through parable of a theological issue I’ve been thinking about lately, and is not meant to accurately reflect any historical personalities. Inspired in part by Scott Alexander’s excellent Answer to Job. Comments/criticism are welcome.)
(Moses is wandering in the mountains while his sheep graze, and suddenly spots a burning bush) Moses: Strange... why is that bush on fire? It’s a cool day in June, this is a normal, non-fire-spewing mountain in the middle of nowhere, no other humans around for miles, and there hasn’t been any lightning in weeks. What could be the cause of this? (Comes closer to examine the burning bush) What the heck? That bush is on fire....but it’s not being burnt! It doesn’t look hydrated enough to withstand such heat; How is this possible?
(A voice rings out powerfully from the heavens) God: MOSES, MOSES
Moses (jumps, startled): AAAHHH!!! What the...how did...who’s there?
God: IT IS I, GOD
Moses: No, seriously, though. Who are you, where are you, and how do you know my name? Please come out from wherever you’re hiding, you almost gave me a heart attack; I’m like 80 years old, you know.
God: I WAS BEING SERIOUS. I AM LITERALLY GOD, THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE AND ALL THAT JAZZ. I’M ALSO LITERALLY EVERYWHERE, BUT YOU CAN CONSIDER ME TO BE TALKING FROM THAT BURNING BUSH IF IT MAKES YOU FEEL BETTER. NOW TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES AND LISTEN CLOSELY, BECAUSE I HAVE CHOSEN YOU AS THE LEADER OF THE—
Moses: Wait a minute, back up just a little there. You’re what?
God: I AM GOD, THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE.
Moses: No you’re not.
Moses: You can’t possibly be God. Or to be more accurate, you might be the actual creator of the universe, but I find that to be an astronomically unlikely possibility. I have absolutely no good reason to think you are God. Pharaoh, my adopted grandfather and supreme ruler of Egypt, claims to be God, but obviously isn’t. Considering there have been literally thousands of delusional people throughout history who have claimed to be the one and only, mutually exclusive God, I see no reason to believe to believe you more than any of them, and I definitely don’t believe them. Why should I take your claim to Divinity any more seriously than Grandpa’s?
God: WELL, DOES THIS MAGICAL BURNING BUSH COUNT FOR ANYTHING? ALSO, WHAT ABOUT MY SUPER DIVINE SOUNDING BOOMING VOICE COMING FROM EVERYWHERE AT ONCE?
Moses: Maybe you didn’t catch that last bit—my Grandpa is Pharaoh! He’s got literally hundreds of court magicians who can do a whole bunch of really impressive-looking magic tricks to back up his claims to Divinity. I grew up in the royal court, I know how easy it is to create illusions that seem unexplainable at first glance. There’s very little in the way of magic tricks you can throw at me that I’ll actually be impressed by.
God: WILL YOU BE IMPRESSED IF I TURN YOUR STAFF INTO A SNAKE?
Moses: What? Why in the world...no, of course not! That’s, like, the signature trick of the Egyptian high priests, they used to do that one all the time back when I was there. I already told you, after living with Grandpa for a few years, I’m supremely unimpressed by and skeptical of magic tricks. If you really wanna play God with me, you’ll have to do a lot better. Do something that only God could possibly pull off, and then I’ll be impressed.
God: SOMETHING LIKE THIS?
(A glowing halo of pure light surrounds Moses, and gently lifts him up into the air. He rises higher and higher, accelerating in speed all the while. Eventually, slowing down, Moses finds himself floating in space, looking down at the curvature of the earth. After a minute or two he stops screaming, and catches his breath.)
Moses: okay, um... that was something. Definitely didn’t expect this to happen when I woke up this morning...Oh hey! The earth is round, that’s cool. Makes sense, I guess.
God: ARE YOU SUFFICIENTLY CONVINCED OF MY DIVINITY NOW? YOUR BRETHREN ARE DYING AS WE SPEAK, SO FOR THEIR SAKES TRUST ME AND LET ME GUIDE YOU.
Moses (completely ignoring God): I must have eaten something bad yesterday. It was probably Jethro’s mushroom soup. I thought it tasted funny...
God: SERIOUSLY? YOU THINK YOU’RE HALLUCINATING RIGHT NOW?
Moses (absentmindedly): Yeah, definitely. It’s the most reasonable explanation of what’s going on right now.... What if this isn’t the soup, though?
God: —IT ISN’T—
Moses: what if I’m having some sort of neurologically induced mental breakdown of some sort? Is this what a stroke feels like? Or, does my biological family have any history of mental health issues? What about schizophrenia? Wish I knew what was causing this...
God: IT’S ME. I’M CAUSING THIS.
Moses: Respectfully, I don’t think you are, unless you’re, like, the embodiment of my subconscious or something. Which if so, hi! Please stop sending me those horrible nightmares I keep having, alright?
God: IF I HAD A FACE AND A HAND I’D BE FACEPALMING RIGHT NOW. YOU AREN’T HALLUCINATING, THIS IS REALITY AND I AM LITERALLY GOD, WHO WILL DELIVER YOUR PEOPLE FROM SLAVERY AS SOON AS YOU ACCEPT ME. IS THERE ANYTHING AT ALL THAT WOULD CONVINCE YOU OF THAT FACT?
Moses: You know, that’s a good question. Not that I think you’re actually anything more than some sort of weird brain glitch, but if you actually were God, how would you be able to prove that?
God: THAT’S THE QUESTION
Moses: To be honest, I’m not really sure. I’d ask you to tell me something only I could possibly know, but since you’re probably a creation of my own mind, you almost definitely have access to all my memories, so that wouldn’t be selective evidence for your Divinity. Maybe if you make some highly improbable testable prediction about the future...now that might count for something. Then again, plenty of schizophrenics believe that they can successfully predict the future, so I’d need to have some witnesses who are made aware of the prediction beforehand so I can rule out my mind simply playing tricks on me. Even still, I may be hallucinating the witnesses as well, but there does eventually come a point where I have to trust my perception of reality.
God: WHY NOT TRUST YOUR PERCEPTION NOW THEN?
Moses: very simply, because the odds of you actually being God are far lower than the odds that I’m hallucinating right now. I can only trust my perception when the odds of what I’m seeing being real are higher than the odds that I’m hallucinating. Having a number of people I trust who can back up my experience would significantly decrease the chances that I’m hallucinating, though not to zero. Even with that, though, the prior likelihood of you being God is so incredibly low that I’m not sure even that would be enough...
God: THAT DOESN’T SEEM LIKE A PARTICULARLY WISE IDEOLOGY, MOSES. WHAT IF, FOR EXAMPLE, YOU WERE TOLD YOU WERE ACTUALLY A WIZARD, WITH SOME IMPRESSIVE LOOKING EVIDENCE GIVEN, AND YOU WERE GIVEN THE OPTION TO LEARN HOW TO USE REAL MAGIC? WOULD YOU PASS UP THAT OPPORTUNITY SIMPLY BECAUSE ITS MORE LIKELY THAT YOU ARE HALLUCINATING?
Moses: Not necessarily. If the experience is a fun one, and I’m not harming anyone, than I might very well decide to go learn magic, even if it’s all a hallucination and I’m actually locked up in a hospital ward the whole time. Regardless of the reality of the experience, it’s still more likely to be a net positive than a net negative to play along (with proper precautions taken of course just in case I might be posing any risk). So in many cases, even if something is more likely than not to be fake, it might still make sense to go along with it and have fun.
God: SO WHY NOT DO THE SAME HERE? IF YOU FOLLOW MY COMMANDMENTS I’LL GIVE YOU INCREDIBLE REWARDS IN THE AFTERLIFE, YOU KNOW. ARE YOU REALLY WILLING TO PASS THAT POSSIBILITY UP EVEN IF ITS UNLIKELY TO BE TRUE?
Moses: Sorry, I guess that does seem rather hypocritical of me. The reason I’m being so skeptical isn’t really what you’re saying now, it’s what I’m fairly confident you’ll eventually command me. If I decide to follow you just in case you‘re actually God, I have a strong suspicion, based off of my past experience with people who claimed to have a link to the Divine, that eventually you’ll command me to do something that I’ll believe to be evil from my humanist ethical perspective. Let me guess...you’ll probably tell me to kill someone who appears innocent from my merely mortal perspective.
God: WELL I WAS GOING TO TELL YOU TO KILL ALL THE FIRSTBORN EGYPTIAN CHILDREN, AND THEN A BIT LATER TO KILL THOSE WHO DON’T FOLLOW THE SABBATH, PEOPLE WHO BOW DOWN TO LITTLE STATUES, ETC... BUT TRUST ME, THERE’S A REALLY GOOD REASON FOR DOING ALL THAT, BUT UNFORTUNATELY YOUR HUMAN BRAIN SIMPLY CANNOT GRASP THE FULL EXTENT OF MY REASONING. STILL THOUGH, YOU SHOULD TRUST ME, BECAUSE I CREATED THE UNIVERSE AND AM THEREFORE CLEARLY SMARTER THAN YOU.
Moses: See, there you have it. I simply am not willing to kill anyone on the off-chance it nets me eternal reward. If I was, then I’d be ethically obligated to kill even my best friends if somebody offered me a high enough potential reward in the afterlife along with a vague assurance that someone smarter than me concluded it was ethically okay to do so. I’m simply not willing to do that. Call me hopelessly altruistic, but that’s the way it is.
God: YOU KNOW WHAT, NEVER MIND. I CAN’T POSSIBLY GIVE YOU ENOUGH EVIDENCE SO THAT YOU WILL FULLY TRUST ME. THIS ISN’T WORTH MY DIVINE TIME. I GUESS I’LL GO FIND SOMEBODY ELSE WHO’LL BE MORE RECEPTIVE TO MY REVELATION, THEN.
(In a flash of fire and smoke, Moses is instantly transported back to the mountain, seated in front of a perfectly healthy, non-burning bush. Moses sighs, stands up, and walks down the mountain to look for his lost sheep.)