Could Atheism Prove that God does not Exist?

March 20, 2009

The skeptical atheist – the original and genuine atheist – has competition even among atheists. Distinctions between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ atheism, and between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ atheism, have appeared in recent literature. Definitions of these types of atheism vary across atheists. What ‘positive’ and ‘strong’ atheists have in common is their view that one is justified in believing that no god exists, and they regard ‘weak’ or ‘negative’ atheists as only holding the lesser view that one is only justified in not believing that any god exists.

What exactly would be the difference between concluding that one should believe that X does not exist, and concluding that one should not believe that X exists? Let’s try it on Santa Claus. Could I say, “I should not believe that Santa exists, but I should not believe that Santa does not exist.” If I can’t bring myself to believe that Santa doesn’t exist, I am admitting that for all I know, Santa might exist. This “weak anti-Claus” stance seems too weak to someone convinced that Santa does not exist, for lots of reasons involving the extreme implausibility that Santa does exist. No one sees Santa, his North Pole hideout hasn’t been discovered, his Christmas eve schedule would violate natural laws, etc. These facts about Santa encourage the “strong anti-Claus” stance, but they can simultaneously encourage the weak anti-Claus stance, too. After all, if Santa is admittedly so mysterious and so unnatural, it is very hard to imagine how to show that he doesn’t exist! In the absence of a definitive proof that this amazing Santa doesn’t exist, the weak anti-Claus stance is the more reasonable alternative. The burden of proof is definitively shifted to the strong anti-Claus position. Returning to god, can the positive/strong atheist conclusively eliminate the possibility that no god exists?

It is, contrary to legend, quite possible to prove a negative. But not all negatives. It all depends on the kind of negative, the non-existence of something, that you aim to prove. When talking about alleged supernatural beings, there aren’t many successful options.

Many atheists believe that there are rational proofs that god does not exist. For example, some atheists are so impressed by the argument from the existence of evil that they conclude that this argument proves that god cannot be omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. There are many ways for Christian theology to reply to this argument, and we will cover the ensuing debate in a later blog entry. But suppose, just for a minute, that there really is a perfectly valid argument for that negative conclusion. Well, what does that argument exactly prove? Only one thing: that one specific kind of god cannot exist: a god having omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence.

Two lessons are learned here. First, the atheist is reminded that there might be other kinds of gods. Second, the theologian is reminded that it is possible, in theory, to prove that some specific gods do not actually exist.

There are two basic ways to design non-existence proofs. The “dialectical non-existence proof” argues that two or more characteristics of a specific god are logically incompatible. On the reasonable assumption that a definition of something having logically incompatible characteristics can only be the definition of a necessarily non-existent entity, dialectical non-existence proofs can prove that specific kinds of gods cannot actually exist. For example, many Christians believe both that god is perfect and that god can suffer along with us. Figuring out how a perfect being can suffer requires some fancy refinements to god to avoid the harsh verdict of a dialectical non-existence proof. And even if these refinements go badly and one characteristic of god must go, theology is often flexibly accommodating to such modifications to its conception of god. Avoiding dialectical non-existence proofs is, from theology’s point of view, just another way for humanity to learn more about god. It also keeps theologians very busy.

The other kind of proof confronts a specific kind of god with the actual existence of something else, where it is necessarily impossible that both can exist together. This “evidential non-existence proof” attempts to demonstrate that some specific god cannot exist if something else (the “disprover”) actually does exist. Of course, this sort of proof works well only if there is conclusive evidence of the actual existence of the disprover. Theologians are attracted towards investigating the validity of a proof’s logical steps, but ordinary believers have a notoriously expeditious way of disposing of the problem, by stubbornly denying the existence of the disprover. Consider the example from the previous paragraph. What sort of evil could disprove the existence of god? There just couldn’t be any! Or, expressed from the theologian’s perspective, what sort of god would permit getting disproven by any actual turn of affairs? Not surprisingly, Christian theology has already carefully insulated god and god’s plan for the universe from any and all possible evidence. What appears to be evil really isn’t; what we must nevertheless declare to be evil (such as the Holocaust) still has some inscrutably divine sanction, for all we know. A debate over god and evil soon sidetracks into a debate over the extent of our knowledge of god. Revising god (well, our conception of god) is endlessly productive and profitable for theology. Here’s another example. Does natural evolution prove that god did not specially create humanity? Well then, god must have designed the natural laws responsible for humanity’s origins. Keeping god out of harm’s way from actual evidence has also helped to keep theologians employed and busy.

The atheist can offer impressive proofs that specific and inflexible gods do not exist. Logic, obvious evidence, and scientific knowledge can rule out a wide variety of gods. Unfortunately, the number of potentially conceivable supernatural entities (some have already been thought of, but most have not) far outruns the number of disprovable gods. But perhaps the intellectual’s gods don’t really count. An atheist could still feel proud that many the gods which have been worshipped by the great mass of humanity have suffered disproof. Nevertheless, that accomplishment, though nobly executed, is hardly the same thing as successfully proving that no god could possibly exist. The human imagination will, in all likelihood, forever outrun reason’s logic or science’s facts.

When an atheist proudly claims that god can be disproven, he overstates the actual achievement, ignores imaginative theology, and encourages religious believers to suppose that the only reasonable atheist is the one who can prove that their god does not exist. This bold tactic unfortunately sets off a philosophical vs. theological arms race which no one can win. Indeed, this strategic race has already begun. The ordinary believer cheers on theologians protecting god from refutation, but the needed theological refinements to god in turn make god more and more mysterious, which in turn forces atheists to design ever-more intricate arguments against god, and when these arguments fall short, the believers rejoice at the atheists’ dismay and congratulate themselves for their blind faith in incomprehensible mystery. Atheism has a poor strategy if it mainly results in the spread of fideism.

To further appreciate the magnitude of the task of proving that no god exists, compare it to the task of proving that no extraterrestial life exists. Would any scientist, no matter how skeptical about alien life she might be, eagerly undertake such a demonstration? With what degree of confidence could a scientist, using only current scientific knowledge, assert that no alien life exists anywhere in the universe? Now, keep in mind that today’s scientists are rightly skeptical about alien life, in the sense that we do not yet have good evidence of alien life. Scientists cannot reasonably assert that alien life exists, even if they suppose that such life has a fair probability of existing somewhere else out in the vast universe. Nor can scientists reasonably assert that alien life does not exist. And scientists cannot even affirm not believing that alien life does not exist. There simply isn’t enough evidence at present for either the ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ position about alien life. The entire dichotomy between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ stances breaks down completely here, and the same situation holds for the existence of god.

The only useful category remaining is skepticism, pure and simple: all scientists should be skeptical about alien life, and everyone should be skeptical about god. What kind of atheist are you? I recommend answering, "a skeptical atheist."

 

Comments:

#1 Kevin (Guest) on Friday March 20, 2009 at 12:50pm

The nice thing for most of us atheists/skeptics/infidels/non-believers/agnostics/heathens/freethinkers/humanists/devil-worshippers/pagans/people otherwise supposedly anti-Christian/anti-religious and bound for eternal damnation, is that your average believer is as ignorant of academic theology as he or she is of the Bible, with the notable exception of some “pop theologians” who have written best-selling literature. While a few are aware of some tired tropes that they can bring up to incense skeptics, almost all are narrowly concerned with their god of choice, and not with anything involving multiple gods across history or cultures. Simply not believing in their god is enough to infuriate them and provide for an entertaining discussion, if you’re the “militant” type.

#2 Kevin (Guest) on Friday March 20, 2009 at 12:53pm

Correction: I equivocated between the word “believer” and the more narrow Christian believer by comparing ignorance of theology to ignorance of the Bible. Perhaps I should have said “holy book”. Blame it on being an American non-believer from the Deep South; they’re most of what I’ve had to deal with, in terms of metaphysical harassment.

#3 gray1 on Friday March 20, 2009 at 2:03pm

The author makes some very good points here.  It is very easy to take a perfectly logical and often too lengthy path to nowhere.  This has been proven innumerable times by both sides of the theology (or not) question.  Perhaps I can call myself a “skepical theist”?

Mankind’s various perceptions of inexplicable things has forever represented an itch that must be scratched one way or another.  Thus was created the “wise man” as a profession.

#4 Jesse (Guest) on Friday March 20, 2009 at 7:29pm

This essay shows that engaging theologians on the existence of God via arguments like the problem of evil is not very useful, since they can create endless new fictions such as the free will defense, or even purely evil beings such as demons.

I think that the best method to debunk the idea of any god is to do it using the arguments from physicalism.  When theists speculate as to immaterial or disembodied beings, just remind them that science has shown that the “mind” is just a property of matter. 

Argue theology with them, and you’re on their turf.  Argue science with them, and they’re on our turf.

#5 Robert (Guest) on Saturday March 21, 2009 at 1:16am

Great essay.

I have never been impressed with arguments from evil.  At a minimum this argument can only show that the Christian god is not good.  But we know that from reading the Bible.

#6 Vadjong (Guest) on Saturday March 21, 2009 at 5:34am

On another tack, atheists can prove gods do exist!

When we gain better understanding of cognition on the one hand and more evidence about the historical development of the earliest religions on the other, it will be possible to come to a full natural understanding of metaphysical beliefs and church history (of every persuasion ever dreamt up).
Essays like this, about theological immunity to proof, are also a good step in that direction (as is Dan Dennett’s ‘Breaking The Spell’).

Spirituality, rainbow-like, will be explained as the completely worldly (brainy) phenomenon that it is. For those that want it, this may even lead far beyond ‘New Age’-thinking and help make the human sense of wonder more open and more true to itself, while getting rid of the old, parochial, doctrinary god mythologies (replacing them with new, worldwide, institutionalized “wellness” franchises, no doubt).

#7 gray1 on Saturday March 21, 2009 at 8:57pm

Does God or gods exist?

If reductionism seeks knowledge by extrapolating into the past that which we have managed to perceive thus far of the universe, so too can an even slightly fair degree of holism extrapolate likewise into the future. 

Since it is that evolution and emergence are now the given processes of change, it is from stardust and slime we were derived to become our current somewhat more complex form. Do we dare assume that such processes have now stopped or does not also occur elsewere within our universe?  So what’s a billion years or so of space-time difference worth?

Assuming that fate disallows any more planetary catastrophes, then into what kind of being or form will homo sapiens (or any other such strange entities as may exist in the universe) ultimately transform given an exra several million years or so?  We might shudder to think! 

That end (or still intermediate?) product might even appear to us as all-powerful, all-knowing, immortal, etc.(sound familiar?). Assuming we can absolve ourselves of our own “center of the universe” complex, is it still impossible that this level of advancement has already occured somewhere in an infinite universe? 

There is no mathmatical difference between the infinite simplicity (is that an oxymoron or what?)of a “big bang” singularity and the infinite complexity of a universe that expands even faster than the speed of light.  It still appears that either one divided by the other will give the answer “1” or perhaps “0” if you want to try to go that way.

Perhaps we’ll even figure out “ultimate power” before something kills us all and we become a moot point to whomever or whatever is left.  But then, would we then be deemed “gods” ourselves?  By anyone?Fortunately, even my dog currently knows better.

#8 PLaClair (Guest) on Monday March 23, 2009 at 3:54am

I’m not a big fan of philosophy as a tool for considering the nature and shape of reality. Too many debatable assumptions and too much categorizing. I see no reason to think that it’s a reliable method of inquiry in that sphere of inquiry. Its proper sphere is closer to home.

Here’s what I know.

1. People have been inventing stories about gods throughout history. People are inclined to believe what they wish to believe, including what comforts them. That is a complete and fully adequate explanation for theistic belief.
2. There is no evidence that a god exists.
3. Those statements should not be taken to leave the door open to the existence of a god any more (or less) than the statement that there is no evidence that invisible green unicorns exist.
4. However, if you tell me that an omnipotent being (a) created the world this way, having the power to make it any way he chose or (b) that eternal torment in hell is part of God’s justice, then I do not believe you have fully thought through your values.

Characterize that as you will. I decline the labels.

#9 gray1 on Monday March 23, 2009 at 10:00am

“invisible green”? Yes, that would be a very difficult color to prove.

It is the belief of many that we have proven the big bang theory simply by reversing through time our observed perceptions of the universe while at the same time realizing that major factors such as “time zero” and dark matter still remain unexplainable for the most part.  Some of the recent, greatly honored and quite valid scientific research efforts in this regard are beginning to sound to most of us as being at least as “wild” as the collective dreams of the shamans. 

That said, a pluristic approach to understanding both ourselves within and the universe without should consider both reductionism and holism not only as philosophical issues, but as the prescription for properly complete scientific and/or skeptical inquiries into anything at all. 

It is not by accident that the Ph. in Ph.D. stands for philosophy.  It is expected that those who receive such a degree exhibit the ability to think and thus make advancements beyond that which they have been taught by others.  Ideally, each should represent the character of the child who is free to point out the fact that,“the Emperor is naked!”, however, we do not live in an ideal world but one more prone to conformism.

Ironically, there is one school of thought that is inclined to say that there is no “proof” of god, while another that is inclined to say that “everything”, including the fact that this question can even be asked, is positive proof that some unknown influence affects reality as we can perceive it even by any reasonable statistical analysis.  Some have historically been taught that this unknown factor is called “God”.

#10 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 23, 2009 at 11:01am

What about the intermediate position? - one that stops well short of claiming to be able to prove God doesn’t exist, but still maintains there is plenty of good reason to think God doesn’t exist.

#11 Humans2Singularity (Guest) on Tuesday March 24, 2009 at 10:24am

Hi gray1,

I think you touched a key point here with your last sentence: “Some have historically been taught that this unknown factor is called “God”“.
Actually, what does God mean? Let’s, first of all, define God. If we try we realize that each religion have different ideas of God, even each person, and we will also realize that the definitions are not satisfactory on a scientific point of view… it’s hard to conceptualize God.

There is no doubt that the idea of God DOES exist in all humans as we all think we understand what we mean with this word. So there is some a-priori structure in our brains that creates this idea.
If we look at recent theories from Marc Hauser on moral judgments or also from Noam Chomsky on linguistics we realize that our brain is born with a lot of a-priori bio-structures that define our capacity to learn and our capacity to generate ideas and moral judgments of a certain kind.
In a way those theories are in line with rationalist like Kant on his a-priori concept.
But, at this point, I would mention the idealist Schelling on his idea of “positive philosophy”  where he basically believes that philosophy (today we would include science in here) based only on concepts can only explain things that fit on “concepts” but reality, as infinite and absolute, does not fit on concepts and he thought humans shouldn’t forget religious approach as also essential to understand the property of infinite and absolute of the reality.

Personally I’m a “defender” of reason and secularism but I think religion is an important reality of humans world that has also to be inquired. Recently science inquiries on moral principles is showing good results (as Marc’s theories) so I think we’re almost there to link biological structures to religious thoughts ad believers will have to live with it… I guess it won’t be easy for them.
But anyway, even if we demonstrate that religious thought are pre-determined and limited by pre-established structures on our brains… why are those structures there? Why religious thought is so linked to humans in the history of evolution?
Nobody can say that humans and religious thought are not linked. They’re! but how deep are these 2 concepts linked?
Could they show 2 different sides of the reality?

#12 gray1 on Tuesday March 24, 2009 at 2:47pm

http://docartemis.com/brainsciencepodcast/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is an often heard buzz word in many episodes of Dr. Ginger Campbell’s “Brain Science Podcast” which has covered this and a great many other topics applicable to the thoughts currently being exchanged here such as Noam Chomsky’s theories and the degree of “hardwiring” actually being found by neuroscientists as opposed to the degree of “plasticity” in the brain and how we learn, forget and even re-learn the things which allow us to partake of this world.

Kant was a noble figure in his day, but really?  I submit the following for consideration:
“No error exists in our knowledge, if it completely agrees with the laws of our understanding, nor can there be an error in a representation of the senses, because they involve no judgment, and no power of nature can, of its own accord, deviate from its own laws. Therefore neither the understanding by itself (without the influence of another cause), nor the senses by themselves could ever err.“Kant : Critique of Pure Reason, A292.

So, how very wrong must the above statement appear in the shining light of our current state of medical science? While “senses” are presumed by Kant to “involve no judgment”, we now know from scientific study of the human brain and it’s mental processes that many if not most of the perceptions derived from our sensory inputs either remain incomplete or are selectively filtered as such information is processed within the brain - wherein lays a lifelong set of biases, rationalizations and instructions on how to interpret such sensory input. Misperceptions are aplenty and “normal” while at the same time the unconscious mind tries to tackle much that the conscious is apparently unprepared for.

Too often cited in favor of a forceful argument, Kant’s poetic language such as “the laws of our understanding”, as well as a reference to other laws regulating any “power of nature” would actually have us believe that “senses by themselves could never err.” Who establishes such “natural” laws and how does one go about proving that some of them might now be easily realized as being wrong? At least that’s what the science now tells us.

This reason based argument sounds much like another line, this time by Jefferson, which goes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, regarding something which could have been a little better defined going in since “We” who inherited the U.S. Declaration of Independence have been “evolving” what was meant thereby pretty much ever since. And as “God” was therein invoked as the ultimate authority giving the colonists the right to cast off the British Crown rule, perhaps some would now say that such blood was shed only “in the interest of fairness” (or self-interest) instead of for God and feelings for a country that didn’t even yet exist – but I digress.

Science in general is always improving our understanding of things if people care to keep up with the ever increasing rate of progress. More than anything it is the job of science to continually improve itself, while at the same time it seldom finds anything that could really be termed an “absolute” in spite of what the various vested interests might profess. Just as scientists get comfortable, someone who makes a breakthrough must then fight against the established order which will move heaven and earth to prevent any shaking up of their own foundations until at some point they might finally be shamed into accepting any startling new knowledge.

Conversely, religion often tends to begin with absolutes and then dissolves into an increasing level of mush in the interest of self-interest and/or increasing the membership rolls of their “faithful”. God help us (really) as various religious leaders increasingly ignore the tenants of their own faith while at the same time an ever increasing number of outright frauds and charlatans enter the self-service of God, or whatever it is they call upon.

Just as our increased understanding of the human mind can perhaps show us where some errors may have occurred with earlier ways of rationalizing ideas and how we might communicate them more effectively, so can science and religion work together to find (or perhaps rediscover) an immutable universal truth which in the final analysis, is one. To be anchored in dogma allows a scientist to go no where at all. At the same time without its own particular dogma, religion tends to sink into the sand and become increasingly part of the world instead of representative of any heaven.

That said, my personal opinion is that neither God(s) nor morality is a “sense” hardwired into human beings.  I feel these things are for the most part derived as learning experiences for each complex individual who is subject to the social pressures and environments they encounter.  This does not, however, discount any number of inherited mental mood or reactionary tendencies which I view as being every bit as genetic as eye color.  Humans are, however, endowed with an innate sense of curiosity and need to understand things, particularly those which seem in some way important.  Science thereby asks “how?” while philosophy and religion ask “why?”.

#13 PLaClair (Guest) on Tuesday March 24, 2009 at 8:25pm

Which aspects of religion are hard-wired?

Which aspects of religion are or could be beneficial?

What can secularists do to make religion a more constructive enterprise?

#14 Humans2Singularity (Guest) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 at 2:39am

Very interesting points gray1,
Let me put some more comments on the table.

Neuroplasticity
Yep, good point, neuroplasticy is an area that is giving us a new understanding of how the brain works and seems promising but we have to be careful here. We don’t know yet how it works and what is the impact of that plasticity in our capacity of reasoning and our a-priori (hardwired) structures that other studies demonstrate that exist beyond what we thought. So “hardwiring” and plasticity are not in opposition, I think both have to be better understood.
My point was that we already have so many a–priori “structures” in our brain that already condition the way we see the world and in a way they establish the boundaries to the way we interact with it.

Kant
Regarding Kant, from my studies of Kant I would say your interpretation of the lines you mention is not correct. Of course, at present human thought and science have progressed a lot since then, we cannot criticize Kant’s mind with today’s mind…. But anyway, I don’t think this is the right place to start a critique on Kant’s philosophy. I just wanted to remind the fact that Kant’s “intuition” (because he didn’t have any scientific proof) of the a-priori was quite similar to today’s hardwiring structures that are being demonstrated by scientists.

Science vs Religion
If we look into science world we will very easily find charlatans too and people acting on his own interest. Should we remind all the terrible things humans have done in name of science too? How science serves wars, etc…? That is not a matter of science or religion but a matter of humans itself. We have so many good things but at the same time so many bad ones. I mean that you can find good will people in both fields, and that’s what interest me, talking to good will people (like I guess you’re) to share ideas and knowledge, even faith.

“”I feel these things are for the most part derived as learning experiences for each complex individual who is subject to the social pressures and environments they encounter.””
Well, if you read for example some Chomsky or M Hauser studies on linguistics or moral judgment you will maybe change your mind on this.

PlaClair,

Regarding your questions I suggest you to read some books of the people that gray1 and me mention in our post and you will get the answers to your first question.

For the second one, just ask to a religious person (good will and honest one) and you will get your answers.

Regarding the third one I would say that a constructive enterprise starts always from respect and honesty and the good will to have an open dialogue, all these ingredients served on the plate of “Free Thinking” (even if we could discuss a lot on what “free” means  ).

#15 PLaClair (Guest) on Wednesday March 25, 2009 at 3:23am

Thanks, Humans2, but since I’m interested in our movements advancing, I was asking what participants thought.

#16 gray1 on Wednesday March 25, 2009 at 8:57am

Perhaps it is my own connotations associated with the term “structures” that gives me pause.  I perhaps take that word to mean something that has been either built or built upon or at least recognizable after the fact(a posteriori).

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