Proving God’s Existence is Impossible

November 16, 2011

Among your humbler atheists and typical agnostics, common phrases can be overheard. “Show me the evidence for God,” they say. “I’m not close-minded, just skeptical” is another cliché. Some atheists may be so bold as to announce, “Sure, I’d admit there’s a proof for God, if clinching evidence were presented to me.”

I’m not that open-minded about God. In fact, there’s no way to prove to me that there is a god. Not if we are talking about God, of the sort worshipped by billions nowadays. You’ve heard of this God: entirely supernatural, infinitely powerful, perfectly intelligent, etc. That God is impossible to prove. To anyone.

It’s not just my own personal problem. I’ve already explained why “Not even God could make Me Religious.” But my problem with God is everyone’s problem. It’s actually impossible to prove to anyone that this God exists. Here’s why.

It is possible to ‘convince’ lots of people that there’s a God. Religions have been accomplishing that for millennia. But I’m not talking about establishing psychological certitude. Persuading someone of something is hardly the same thing as proving it. People staunchly believe all sorts of things for poor reasons, or no reasons at all. Also note that the actual existence of God, if God really does exist, is not proof that there is a God. A proof of X is a sufficiently rational demonstration of X that can be understood by people and hence believed by people. A proof is a relationship between the thing to be proven and a person offered that proof. Look at it this way: water has always been composed of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms, but there was no proof of that until the nineteenth century. Until modern chemistry’s demonstrations, no one could know this natural fact. Where is the demonstrable proof for God?

The basic issue is whether a human being of ordinary perceptual and cognitive powers could ever be supplied a proof that God exists. I deny that possibility, forever. It’s not just a temporary obstacle. It’s not like waiting for science to get there eventually. Not only won’t science ever supply a proof of God, no other rational method will either. Mystics and existential theologians have been saying this for a long time, and they seem satisfied with just abnormal states of awareness or profound emotions to draw them nearer to what they call God. They abandoned reason long ago, and everyone else needs to similarly realize that reason won’t ever reach God.

Here’s the basic argument showing why there’s no proof for God (as defined above).

1. Humans will never have the cognitive capacity to directly understand anything with infinite powers or qualities.

2. Humans will never have intellectual reasons to indirectly demonstrate the existence of anything with infinite powers or qualities.

3. There are only two kinds of proofs for God: direct understanding or indirect demonstration.

Conclusion: Humans will never have any proofs for God.

On the first premise, it is common enough for theologians to deny this, instead claiming that some people have had direct experiences with the Almighty. The issue is whether any of those people actually experienced some infinite properties or qualities of God, or only thought they did. Could they understand what is really happening to them? Mystical experiences are frequently described as involving losing all sense of embodiment or finitude, so that one’s consciousness seems to inflate beyond all bounds, or disappears altogether into something inexpressibly vaster. This psychological phenomenon happens to some people, sure. But these experiences can easily be induced by meditation, isolation, drugs, falling asleep, or blows to the head. Naturally, theologians claim that people of the ‘right’ religion do encounter God. But this is just a bluff: they could not possibly know this. No human has the cognitive capacity to understandably distinguish some genuine encounter with God from a pseudo-encounter. The mystical experience itself can’t display the difference between a genuine encounter with God from some impressive psychological phenomenon. By definition, mystical experiences don’t come pre-labeled with some God’s name on it – if they have anything in common, they are just infinitely mysterious. That’s why mystics end up disagreeing over which God they experience, or (more wisely) they just agree that nothing can be proven.

Theologians are aware of these obstacles. One typical trick is to claim that God endows special people with unnatural powers to know divine matters. Such tricks beg the question, requiring the prior assumption that God exists, so no proof is possible in this manner either.

On the second premise, theology has busily offered all sorts of indirect “proofs” for God. They are all failures, and their inadequacies will never be remedied. As my book The God Debates (www.goddebates.com) explains, evidence now available to us can’t justify belief in God. This is a permanent situation. No matter how far we are driven to rationally admit that something extraordinary requires a very special explanation, a sufficient explanation always falls far short of any God. Miracles can never be good evidence for God; at most we might have to say that something very powerful is interfering with known laws of nature (it’s probably just a newly discovered natural force anyways). The origin of the universe can never be good evidence for a God; if a creator is really ever needed (which it won’t be, since the simpler hypothesis is just more Nature behind the big bang) then this creator only need be slightly more powerful than the universe’s own total energy and much smarter than us. You see how this works: no matter what indirect demonstration is offered by theology, simply ask, “Is an Almighty Supernaturally Infinite God really necessary to do any explaining here?” and then supply the answer yourself: “Not at all.”

Not at all. That’s the appropriate response to the question, “Is God needed to explain anything?” In fact, and this is a point for another time, I doubt whether invoking God is even an explanation at all, much less a dubious explanation.

Should atheists or agnostics ever have to say, “Well, you could prove to me that God exists, if...”? Nope, not at all. And no one else should, either.

Comments:

#1 John D on Thursday November 17, 2011 at 7:09am

Just a few thoughts.

Gould defined the universe as having two “non-overlapping magisteria”.  His exercise in defining the unknowable makes the unprovable assertion that some alternate “thing” or “place” exists outside the boundaries of materialism, science, and reason.

This is really just the same thing as fantasy.  Gould had really just defined his fantastical imagined universe.  This definition is no more compelling than the “Matrix” movies.  The question people raise is: “How can we prove that “god” doesn’t have us plugged into a giant brain milking machine?”

Well, there is a problem here.  If a brain milking machine exists then this must be a part of material reality.  This is not part of this second “magisteria.”  If a machine is used to milk brains then this mean machines exist and therefore this thing is real and material.  This is perhaps not what Gould was talking about.  Perhaps he was really saying that there is everything and there is the “non-everything”.  All he has really described by the second “magisteria” is everything that cannot exist.

To support my claim I am proposing that every definition of god is self contradictory on its face.  The only way to claim there is a god is to make a concrete claim about god’s properties.  In every case, as soon as this is done, it becomes clear that god cannot exist by definition.

An almost childish example of this is the following challenge:  “If god is all powerful then can god create a rock so large “he/she” cannot lift it?”  This sounds like a childish argument, but it is not.  It makes the clear point that nothing can exist that is all powerful.  The idea of being all powerful is self contradictory.  It is a broken idea on its face.

I am endlessly fascinated that my fellow humans cannot see this obvious problem.  All definitions of god are self contradictory.

Try this out on the creator god concept.  Most people believe in some kind of infinite creator god.  They claim everything must have been created so a god must of created it.  My response is “Then what created god?”  Again, this sounds like the kind of question a seven year old would ask…but… it is a valid question.  It is unanswerable.  This means that the entire concept of an infinite god is self-contradictory.  Another example of a broken idea.

I remember the first time I asked a friend what created the infinite god he was talking about.  He simply laughed at me.  He did not answer my question.  Rather, he tried to shame me into silence so he would not be forced to prove something he could not prove.  Funny how that event sticks in my head…

#2 Rob (Guest) on Thursday November 17, 2011 at 4:22pm

#2 is not a valid premise. There’s plenty of indirect handling of infinities in mathematics.

Your argument doesn’t say just that there won’t be any proof for, there won’t be anything against either, short of parsimony.

#3 Ben Lynema (Guest) on Thursday November 17, 2011 at 4:29pm

I often like the Q anaogy myself. If it’s possible to have a being of such power(not to mention that Q is conceivably more powerful in demonstration than the Judeo-Christian god)who has none of the religious tapestry given to god, then if a godlike being exists is there any reason to treat him as anything more than just another life form with flashy abilities? The answer is no.

Some religions, Christianity most directly, try to use arguments to win over people, but any of these are either insufficient, contradictory, or advocate a totaltarian tyrant who would not be worthy of any notice. The fact that it fails, repeatedly, on every level makes me astonished at why it’s so hard for people to come to grips with the truth.

#4 Mike j. (Guest) on Thursday November 17, 2011 at 5:25pm

1. First of all you are contending for agnosticism as you are saying god is unproved not disproved.  It is impossible to disprove the claim.

2. Secondly all you’ve done is frame your epistemology in a naturalistic way.  Who says that’s how knowledge works?  That is a massive assumption that you just declared not defended.

3. Third, one might say that the existence of universal invariant abstract entities (such as laws of logic, math and science) are proof of something transcendtal.  Complete understanding is not a necessary condition for understanding the existence of things (otherwise we would not be able to say that black holes exist)

#5 QuidestVeritas (Guest) on Friday November 18, 2011 at 5:56pm

“Is an Almighty Supernaturally Infinite God really necessary to do any explaining here?”

Yes, it must always be taken into consideration. The argument of intelligibility is always an interesting one, and even though you mentioned that there might have been matter before the “big bang” the possibility of infinite regression seems less likely then a Creator.

Also even if man does not fully understand something or will never have the capability to understand something does not mean it does not exist.  The worm will never understand the concept of atoms, this doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We too are only animals, of a higher intellect, but animals nonetheless.

The question of God is more philosophical than any. Does it make sense for their to be a creator when we see order, intelligibility, the desire to worship, the claims of divine experiences, aesthetics? I would say yes.

#6 L.Long (Guest) on Friday November 18, 2011 at 7:07pm

Which is why when asked I do not deny g0d’s existence, but state that I live as atheist or without g0d.  Primarily because g0d is irrelevant.
There is no proof that g0d influences anything or has done anything, all the universe seems to be ruled by rules we call science.  So g0d is irrelevant.
  The various religions are just political entities that are mostly women hating, gay hating, atheist hating pack of hypocritical bigots trying there best to force their BS up everyone’s ass.  Not opinion, just look around.

#7 gray1 on Sunday November 20, 2011 at 8:49am

Very good John!  The beauty of this rational is that even the hyper-religious God-breathing mystics can fully agree with most of what is said.  Proof? No, but one must still make a personal decision as to such things for, against or “I don’t know” since lack of proof is, as you say, not proof of lack. 

Was that supposed to be absence or absinthe?  If you can’t see something (in this case spelled out) how do you know the difference between something that is not there and something through which one can lose his mind? 

Some error in the “proof of God” business might also be induced by supposing that God would, in spite of all suppositions thereto, elect to remain an inactive agent with regards to his/her/its proof of discovery particularly by persons who disclaim such existence in the first place.  How can one find something that is believed to not exist?  Perhaps more importantly, how can that which is deemed free will exist if you KNOW that God is watching every move.  No, even those who actually and firmly believe manage to forget that often enough.

#8 - Blamer .. on Monday November 21, 2011 at 1:14am

The God of Religion is said to be omni-everything.

Others gods are said to be “godlike” in other ways.

When the monotheist says they’ve sensed something “of God or from God”, en masse anyone with a different god in mind will understand that their words aren’t a way to reconcile conflicting claims about the divine.

This is why theology is a subject without an object.

#9 Hazuki (Guest) on Monday November 21, 2011 at 11:03am

All this says is that it’s not contradictory to believe that there might be a Deist-type God. People waste ridiculous amounts of breath on this, and go to borderline-Aspie extremes (Plantinga’s modal logic comes to mind) just to make this simple statement: what you have not disproven within formal logic is undetermined.

The problem is when people make the massive, dishonest leap from a ground-of-all-being type of God to, say, Yahweh. I have argued for a long time that the way to deal with specific religious claims is to falsify them, not to engage them philosophically, because they are a set of infinitely-mobile goalposts. In my opinion, archaeology, text criticism, church history, anthropology, and comparative mythology have falsified Yahweh.

So, there absolutely may be a God. It doesn’t seem to do anything. We know nothing about it. How should we act toward it?

#10 - Blamer .. on Monday November 21, 2011 at 9:36pm

Yes Hazuki I agree.

Without the monotheist articulating what on earth her God has and hasn’t done, we cannot say that entity does or thinks or is anything.

#11 RBH_III on Tuesday November 22, 2011 at 11:54am

The first paragraph of the OP embodies a slippage that drives me bats, sliding as it does between “evidence” and “proof.”  They aren’t synonyms.  Asking for evidence (intersubjectively verifiable observations that are entailed by the hypothesis at issue and that are ruled out by competing hypotheses) is not asking for proof.

#12 - Blamer .. on Tuesday November 22, 2011 at 12:45pm

RBH_III, also scientific skeptics ought to explicitly address the confusion between the technical and colloquial meanings of those words.

Academia is stricter than the layman about what counts as “evidence”, and one doesn’t need “proof” to believe what they’ve been taught.

#13 Simon (Guest) on Tuesday November 22, 2011 at 5:45pm

I don’t need evidence of infinity, just evidence of large finite ability will impress me.

If someone steps out of a burning bush does a few impressive magic tricks on request like create a new satellite for the earth, raise a few dead people (especially if they were cremated), I’ll know I’m dealing with an entity that is “godlike” in some aspects. If it then requests worship, I probably wouldn’t argue too much.

I think the bigger issue is “define god”, without any evidences the current definitions are insufficient to make much point in discussing the topic.

#14 Pauare (Guest) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 at 5:05am

And why should I want to prove it?. When something exists, I don’t have, nor want to prove it does!

#15 Simon (Guest) on Wednesday November 23, 2011 at 9:33am

Pauare,

the reason one might want to prove it is to be able to base positions on the existence of that god, that are acceptable to the majority of people who don’t currently accept your “god”.

e.g.

If your morality says “eating pork is bad”, because “god says so”. Most people will ignore your admonitions not to eat pork, because most people don’t believe in your god, and pork tastes good.

You have two basic options if you want to prevent pork eating.

1) Argue from a secular view point that eating pork is bad.

2) Prove your god exists (and really disapproves of pork eating).

One might also be interested in being able to demonstrate that one has not fallen into some common human error.

No religious opinion holds a majority of the world’s population, so it is clear that the majority of people in the world have fallen into some sort of error in their religious beliefs. Proving that your god exists would be one way of demonstrating that you were not the one in error. Of course it is easier to simply believe one is not in error, than to demonstrate that this is the case.

#16 The Fof Horn (Guest) on Thursday November 24, 2011 at 3:27pm

God was real but he was not all powerful, all knowing, etc, at first. He was just a volcano at first. He became, in the Hebrews’ minds, all powerful, etc, later on when they moved away from volcanoes. It’s very simple but it needs to be examined through a fresh pair of eyes, unfortunately not usually possessed by most Bible experts or religious people. A child could work this out as children are very good at seeing the very obvious as they are not blighted by prejudice or an over-riding ego.

Will you be one of the very first people to discuss this? It will be a brave man to put his name to this. Better to be one of the first than one of the last. Freud was one of the first, being someone who knew how the mind works. Will you be one of then next?

#17 Ben Vasquez (Guest) on Sunday November 27, 2011 at 4:29am

I’m noted by the works of all things that happen in the world. I’d like to start by noticing the work of the movement in the oddest places. The Church of Satan doesn’t always believe in the work of god but in a sence does not deny his existance. I would love to, infact the work of my own is notice by my own self praise in life. I’d like to tell every one that my own pride in my life is a structure that can never by broken.

#18 Pau (Guest) on Sunday November 27, 2011 at 5:12am

Ben, you seem to be more obsessed by your own self than by any other fact.

#19 JD (Guest) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 12:01pm

Do members and participants in this forum ONLY look at the atheist/agnostic viewpoint?  Have any of you really taken a hard look at Christian apologetics?  I wholeheartedly agree, as a Christian, that you cannot prove the existence of God.  However, you cannot disprove it either.  Same thing with the old Earth/big bang theory (key word: theory).  Don’t limit your capacity to learn about the world - explore all options.  That is, after all, what a logical person would do.  I do not base my beliefs on what I can prove, I base my belief in God on faith and faith alone.  However, I can back up my beliefs with proof if I want/need to. 

I just encourage each of you to go outside your comfort zone and explore why Christians believe in what we do, what logical proof there is, and why.

#20 John D on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 12:34pm

JD - please come back and comment on the apologetics of being Muslim.  Of course, it might help if you were born into a Muslim family.

#21 Mike (Guest) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 12:45pm

There is quite a bit of ad hominem fallacy in this comment thread.

The most cogent Christian argument is the transcendental one where you establish your epistemology based on God’s existence and character.  The proof is unfalsifiable but the argument is that without God’s existence you can’t prove anything (including proof itself).  In short you need God in order to account for the laws of logic, science, morality, etc. if you want those laws to be considered reliable.

#22 Simon (Guest) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 1:22pm

Mike that isn’t cogent, that is called “begging the question”.

#23 Mike (Guest) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 1:34pm

Not quite begging the question, its a little more subtle than that.  I certainly do not find that argument flawless but it is not begging the question.  Anyone who tries to use transcendental laws in a universal way without an epistemology or metaphysic that supports transcendentals is begging the question. 

I’m sure you can find a transcript of “The Great Debate” by Stein and Bahnsen and that articulates the argument more clearly and shows it in contrast to the atheist position and addresses the accusation of begging the question.  More recently Doug Wilson used that argument against Christopher Hitchens.

#24 Simon (Guest) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 10:43pm

After re-consideration it is “begging the question”.

I love the way it as framed as this only proves our type of god, who then happens to be the Christian god, which is a redefinition but we can let that slide as it is logically fine for all previous “Christians” to have defined god incorrectly. So the argument boils down to “The existence of OUR god allows logical discussion, this is a logical discussion, therefore our god exists”, which is pretty much the definition of “begging the question”.

The later part of the argument are unnecessary, any good argument that “a god is a necessary precondition for logic to exist” would convince most people that a god exists, since clearly many types of logic do exist for some definition of exists. Which is exactly the situation you would expect in the logical fallacy of begging the question.

#25 Hazuki (Guest) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 at 12:57am

Ahh, the presuppers are out in force Say hi to Heddle and Pilty and Zilche for me, huh?

News flash: your apologetics are shit. They overprivilege your senses and fail to take history into account. They are good for proving that it is not utterly unreasonable to believe in *a* God. But history, archaeology, text criticism, and comparative religion/myth have thoroughly trashed the Abrahamic religions. You are the worst blasphemers on the planet.

It always cracked me up how you people make this huge, dishonest, sparking electric arc of a leap over the gap from “there may be a God” to “it’s Yahweh and my brand of Calvinism is the One True Faith (TM).”

Off to the graveyard you go now, to go back to feasting on van Til’s rotting zombie schwanz. Away with ye!

#26 Cornelius (Guest) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 at 7:20am

Come on Hazuki, lets not get nasty. Perhaps even more classic than the presuppositional argument is the atheist response to it.  Mockery, name-calling and personal attacks on those using it.  However the argument still stands because the challenge it offers is that you can’t prove anything until you justify your use of invariant abstract entities, otherwise you’re borrowing my worldview in order to disprove my worldview.

#27 Hazuki (Guest) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 at 2:49pm

We’re talking past each other here I see (also, nice choice of name; furthers my hypothesis that you really ARE just flesh puppets animated by van Til’s lingering sociopathy…).

You’re constructing a beautiful siege engine, but you’re making it with square wheels. “Presupposition” is a fancy word for “axiom,” and you can howl all you want that you’re not begging the question, but it makes no difference.

None of what you’re doing matters, because simple study of the history and the texts proves you wrong. You would not know Jesus if he came up to you and slapped you across the face hard enough to leave a red handprint with a size ninety-eight nail hole in it. The irony is utterly delicious.

#28 Djamer (Guest) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 at 12:03pm

I think this “abandonement of reason” is what people call “faith”, and that is why I have never had it nor ever will. The fact that we can “reason” is what makes me a part of the universe contemplating itself. . .

#29 Djamer (Guest) on Wednesday December 14, 2011 at 12:15pm

Also, I do agree with Mr. Keith Mayes, in that the fact that we do reason keeps us from being able to consider anything beyond the cause and effect paradigm and perhaps the universe has just always existed. . .no creator, no ruler, no wizard, no murdering, vengeful, phychotic power monger watching us “sin” daily and preparing a nice hot death bed and afterlife for us. . .

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