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In the Holy Books of a number of religions, we see the prophets of what is depicted as the true god always struggling against priests of false gods, who are often able to accomplish amazing feats. But the rival priests are all just faking it...

Now imagine hugely advanced humans, with powerful silvery machinery, fracking spacetime itself for unobtanium, and accidentally drilling their way into what looks like Heaven. Picture it however you want: Angelic figures with wings on their backs, lots of harps, pearly gates, rivers of milk and honey and mead, 72 figs, the works.

How would we be able to tell whether we're dealing with divine beings or simply sufficiently advanced aliens trying to co-opt our religious myths?

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately this isn't answerable without defining "Divine Beings", and that definition will answer itself. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 23 '15 at 2:30
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    $\begingroup$ @DanSmolinske, well that's kinda the question, namely what besides sufficiently advanced technology defines a divine being? $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 23 '15 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately I think that's going to be entirely opinion-based. Maybe there's a different way to phrase the question, or I'm reading it wrong? $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 23 '15 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ Words like "Divine" mean nothing quantitative. You could use words (which are often attributed with gods) such as Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscience etc, which are provable (to within entirely unreasonable limits). But just asking "how many fingers are behind my back" will hardly prove to be a useful test, thus, you would need to have sufficient power yourself to be able to test the potential gods. $\endgroup$ – Aron Mar 23 '15 at 7:49
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    $\begingroup$ Brave enough to try asking this on the Christianity.StackExchange, Judaism.StackExchange, or Islam.StackExchange sites? ;-) $\endgroup$ – Dronz Mar 23 '15 at 19:21
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You can't tell.

Any sufficiently advanced aliens would be able to directly control what your senses perceive.

So you'd see and hear and touch and taste and feel exactly what they want you to.

Therefore let's say they offer 'proof' of their divinity by doing some miracles, something physically impossible - no problem at all.

They'd be indistinguishable from Descartes' Evil Demon:

The evil demon, sometimes referred to as the evil genius, is a concept in Cartesian philosophy. In his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes hypothesized the existence of an evil demon, a personification who is "as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me." The evil demon presents a complete illusion of an external world, including other minds, to Descartes' senses, where there is no such external world in existence. The evil genius also presents to Descartes' senses a complete illusion of his own body, including all bodily sensations, when Descartes has no body.

and the effect indistinguishable from that of the 'brain-in-a-jar hypothesis':

In philosophy, the brain in a vat (alternately known as brain in a jar) is an element used in a variety of thought experiments intended to draw out certain features of our ideas of knowledge, reality, truth, mind, and meaning. It is based on an idea, common to many science fiction stories, that a mad scientist, machine, or other entity might remove a person's brain from the body, suspend it in a vat of life-sustaining liquid, and connect its neurons by wires to a supercomputer which would provide it with electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives. According to such stories, the computer would then be simulating reality (including appropriate responses to the brain's own output) and the person with the "disembodied" brain would continue to have perfectly normal conscious experiences without these being related to objects or events in the real world.

Brain in a jar hypothesis

You have no way to confirm that this hasn't already happened to you. Watch out for Agents.

(See also: Clarke's Third Law.)

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    $\begingroup$ Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7 Activity Recorded M.Y. 2302.22467 TERMINATION OF SPECIMEN ADVISED $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 23 '15 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa, wait a mi… $\endgroup$ – A E Mar 23 '15 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa That wouldn't happen to be the Candlejack protocol wou-- $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Feb 10 '16 at 18:36
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Edit: I'm seeing a lot of comments that bring up issues already addressed by the answer. Make sure you read the entire Third section and Conclusion. There is no TLDR.

First, to define the Divine:

A recognizably sapient entity that exists beyond our universe.

Note that this definition has little to do with general religious thought. The reasons behind each part are as follows:

  1. Recognizably sapient - while it's possible that the divine could be incomprehensible, that would prevent any useful discussion. So for the purposes of logical argument, the divine must be understandable.
  2. Any being restricted to our universe - obeying all of the laws - is logically indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology.

Second, to prove the Divine:

Our proof follows logically from the first portion:

The Divine must be able to break the core laws of physics.

So for example, a Divine being should be able to violate our core physics laws - conservation of mass/energy, for example. They can add mass without energy, or remove energy/mass with no mechanism.

Third, the issue with proof:

Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to determine if someone is actually breaking the laws of physics, or is merely doing a clever runaround. Is your god really creating energy from nothing, or are they actually exploiting a flaw in your understanding of physics to keep you from figuring out what's really going on?

This means that only a civilization with a mature and rigorous understanding of all physical sciences is capable of telling the differences. But of course, it's really hard to tell if you actually have a complete understanding of physics, or if your understanding is incomplete in some way that you have yet to detect.

Conclusion:

It's logically impossible to tell. You can never be sure that you know enough physics to tell the difference, so it is literally - and appropriately - a matter of faith.

All is not yet lost:

While under this definition we can't prove something is Divine, we are offered a method to prove that something isn't Divine. If you can show the mechanism behind the angels - how they're doing what they do, the man behind the curtain - than you can be reasonably certain that you've found aliens. Although I'm sure the faithful will just tell you that the Divine works in mysterious ways.

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  • $\begingroup$ Even though you need part #2 of your definition to formulate your answer, this does not jive with all people's view of divinity. This definition eliminates a divine being who likes using the laws of physics (or "architect god") as being merely "sufficiently advanced." Of course, one could reasonably say that any definition of the divine does not work with everyone's beliefs, so you must draw a line somewhere. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Mar 23 '15 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ @PipperChip: Such a being is by definition unprovable, which means there's no way to tell either way. I'm making several assumptions here that aren't necessarily true, but I feel are necessary to have a meaningful discussion about proving divinity. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 23 '15 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ "Laws of Physics"...that hardly means anything either. People seem to think Physics is some kind of a book bound somewhere with a subsection paragraph for every case. No, its just what can and can't happen. We honestly don't know why! There is much that a child would know now that would "defy the laws of physics". Think about "human flight" that clearly defies the laws of physics, but every child at secondary school level knows the basics to a hot air balloon. $\endgroup$ – Aron Mar 23 '15 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ "the core laws of physics"; but sufficiently advanced aliens might have laws of physics which we haven't discovered yet. $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Mar 23 '15 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ How can you distinguish between them appearing to break the laws of physics - fooling you beyond your ability to detect the hoax, using their more advanced technology - and them actually breaking the laws of physics? $\endgroup$ – A E Mar 23 '15 at 13:20
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Since this related to religion and specifically judaeo-christian mythology, I can answer with a Bible quote (Luke 6:43-45):

43 “For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.

44 For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush.

45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart[a] brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

This is actually a principle applicable outside religion as well. If the actions of the aliens/angels make it apparent that they are trying to trick you, then you will know. If this does not happen, you are losing nothing by assuming they really are angels. They either are functionally different from angels or not.

Additionally, from theological viewpoint God is both omniscient and omnipotent, this sets a limit to possible consequences of being fooled. God will not intervene to stop as from being fooled, but having fallible humans be (once again) fooled by false divinity will not actually have any impact on the divine plan for mankind. If God actually exists, no aliens can fool him. As such that the aliens look like angels is largely irrelevant, we should still judge them by their actions.

Moreover as somebody noted, if they really are angels, we find them because God wants us to find them, and it happens because God want to tell us something directly. I think we can trust God not to mess it up, we will get the message. We will of course be free to ignore that message, but we will get it, it will not depend on being able to tell angels and aliens apart.

As an added note, most popular concepts of what angels are like and what they are about are pretty much nonsense. So even angels looking and acting like we expect of angels would probably be putting on an act to ease the communication.

In summary, treat them with the respect they deserve, judge them by their actions not by their appearance, and pay very close attention to whatever they have to say to you. These are all true regardless of whether they are advanced aliens or angels from Heaven.

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It is way harder than one can imagine. The God of Old Testament broke rules exactly three times, when he barah (created) matter, life and human soul. Everything else he oseh (made, built, engineered), which implies nothing supernatural. Any miracle after the Sixth Day either has rational explanation, or is misinterpreted.

Your advanced humans are also very unlikely to meet angels (angelic figures with harps and wings are a possibility). I don't want to get deep into the spiritology; in any case an Angel (as the Greek word suggests) is a Messenger; he has no will of its own, and his sole purpose is to convey a particular message from God. Unless God is willing to send an angel to talk to you, you'd not encounter one. Similarly, if you truly see an angel, you'd have no questions like this, even if it appeared in form of a desert vegetation.

The question becomes much more interesting if we abandon the Old Testament model. Consider a Neil Gayman's study of American Gods. You know it was God when you become one. Sad news are that that God is already dead.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this really answers the question, rather it's a discussion of old testament mythological beliefs regarding the nature of gods and other supernatural beings. The question is, how would we determine if an encounter with new beings which appeared to fit with biblical mythology are actually divine beings or just aliens. $\endgroup$ – Mark Micallef Mar 23 '15 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ @MarkyMark I agree this answer could do with expanding on to more directly answer the question. At the moment it only really works as a counter-argument to the "god breaks the laws of physics" answer by pointing out that even in the old testament that is a rare thing. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 23 '15 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ +1 'They look like angels, sir.' 'Ah, cheap trickery, shoot to kill.' $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 23 '15 at 11:37
  • $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that what angels are and if they have free will or not largely depends on what religion you are currently following. It's hard to define them as being this or that without giving a specific religious context first - for example, some religions state that the devil is a fallen angel that was condemned to hell because of disobedience and envy - something he wouldn't be able to do if he didn't have free will on the first place. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Jul 11 '16 at 14:14
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What makes you think you need to be sufficiently advanced?

AKA Sufficient Technology = Sharp Stick

Within history there have been plenty of accounts of MEN who have been able to masquerade as gods. Technology would just make it easier.

All one really needs is the ability to alter the very reality that their subjects live within. Which is actually much easier than one really would imagine.

Between genocide and torture, one can very easily shape the collective memory of a civilization, until the definition of "divine" and "god" would mean "you".

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Sufficiently advanced aliens are just sufficiently advanced aliens, but you may have case like from SG - where aliens called Goa'ulds are playing gods.

They are not much advanced - because they steal technologies to other species (star gates and many more). They may be killed relatively easily (but revived with sarcophagus). And they can die, of course (like Apophis or later Yu).

And next aliens playing gods were Ories. Also they were only very advanced aliens (more advanced than Goa'ulds).

So, if you would set reasonable rules, you may have very advanced aliens that will be successfully playing gods (until some time - for example, they will meet someone who will think in a way that will make them immune to tricks coming from their advancement).

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  • $\begingroup$ Up vote, though this primarily goes along with only being able to prove they are not gods by killing one. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Drake Feb 6 '17 at 19:18
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Divine beings would radiate power, righteousness and purity. Their moral fiber would be unquestionable. They would literally be and feel out of this world.

Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, for all their togas and spires, would have the same questions and doubts as we do. If the encountered beings are themselves riddled with doubt about the meaning of life, the universe and everything, then perhaps we can keep on 'drilling' together.

Just be careful that you don't accidentally drill into that other place...

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    $\begingroup$ Err... Why do you think that, exactly? If you look at the pantheons of most if not all religions, they tend to be rather nasty. The Greek/Roman gods, for instance, were big on rape, incest, bestiality, inflicting cruel punishments on those who accidentally offended them. The God of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament was big on genocide, the Aztec gods appreciated having their priests cut the hearts out of living sacrifices... Few if any gods are beings you'd want to meet in a dark alley. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 23 '15 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ The bit about "righteousness and purity" seems like complete conjecture. As for unquestionable "moral fiber", what does that mean. If you cannot question a being of pure evil, is it's moral fiber "unquestionable"? Conversely, you're also making all kinds of assumptions about the psychology of an alien civilisation with no ascertainable basis or precedent. You have no way to known how they would think. Down-voted as purely opinion based. IMHO this would be an OOC (out-of-context) problem, we'd have no way initially of knowing what we had encountered. $\endgroup$ – Mark Micallef Mar 23 '15 at 5:10
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf More to the point. What the hell is moral? Me thinks more often than not, its what the guy with the biggest stick thinks is "right". It wasn't that long ago that Christians thought that the pinnacle of morals is the poke people with righteous pointy sticks until they believed, or die trying... $\endgroup$ – Aron Mar 23 '15 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ As far as we know, moral is a purely human (and therefore really flexible) concept. $\endgroup$ – openend Apr 10 '15 at 8:23

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