John Shook: Proving God's Existence Is Impossible

This semester I have been teaching Philosophy of Religion using John Shook’s superbly thorough, systematic, incisive, and critical summation of the arguments for and against the existence of God, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between). The book is impressive enough that I would give it the endorsement that “if you only read one book on the existence of God, read The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and Everyone in Between).”

Yesterday, Shook made the case that proving the existence of God is impossible. The core of his argument:

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.

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Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/fsamuels fsamuels

    How do we even know god has infinite powers?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      It’s a matter of definition. You can talk about non-infinitely-powerful god concepts too of course. But classically in the West philosophers referring to God in shorthand mean an infinite being of some sort.

    • kosk11348

      But what does it mean for something to have an “infinite” quality? If I said an apple is “infinitely red,” is that the most red something can be? Redder than red? What? What does adding the qualifier “infinite” to a thing actually accomplish?

      These philosophical constructions of language don’t seem to make any semantic sense to me, like arguing over whether colorless green ideas really do sleep furiously. They are just words that don’t amount to anything.

      Or is that the point? Is Shook saying that god, as classically defined, is an incoherent concept that is literally impossible to conceive of, like square circles?

  • http://blog.earthshod.co.uk/ AJS

    Cop-out.

    If God really exists in any meaningful sense, He must be able to exert some detectable influence over the universe. So far, all we keep finding is more and more evidence of how stuff could have happened without God’s help.

    At the very best, if God exists, He exerts no measurable influence over the universe and is therefore functionally identical to not existing.

    Proving the existent of the non-existent is impossible.

  • colubridae

    As usual playing fast and loose with the word ‘proof’.

    Proof only exists when a premise has conclusions which are incontrovertible.

    Such as the proof that the square root of 2 is irrational. This proof is only valid given certain premise(s) about numbers.

    There is never, nor will there ever be, proof that a premise is true. Only supporting evidence. Maybe supporting evidence, so overwhelming, that the conclusion may be considered a proof (to all intents and purposes).

    Why these simple facts cause philosophers so much trouble is beyond me.

    Take any of the cosmological arguments.
    They all rely on the basic premise viz. that everything must have been created. Therefore a creator was needed (de facto god).

    In fact, concluding god from this argument is false (fallacy of special pleading).

    But even if the argument was not fallacious it would only be a ‘proven’ argument, provided that the initial premise was true. Since this can never be proven, the argument is not a proof. Even if galaxies of evidence were found supporting the premise (as opposed to the reality of zero evidence) it would still not be a ‘proof’. [/sigh].

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I wholeheartedly agree that philosophers should not present proofs as though their premises are not contestable when they clearly are. I am always leery of attempts to put arguments in deductive forms when hidden in the premises are a wealth of ambiguity which can be disputed. If the premises could be understood to mean different things then the appearance of deductive form as though the premises are clear is really deceptive. This is why you do not see me ever presuming to give logically formal presentations of my ideas.

      But nonetheless one has to set that formal issue aside and deal with the substance of the argument on its own merits, and that is my interest in raising Shook’s provocative (but I think false) claim here.

  • SAWells

    I don’t buy either argument. The first assumes that you have to completely understand something in order to know it exists, which is obviously not true. I don’t completely understand my car but I know it gets me to work regularly.

    The second is contradicted by mathematical cases where we routinely reason coherently about infinite sets, and by physical cases where we routinely reason coherently about a possibly infinite universe.

    Both assume that “God” describes some infinitely powerful thing, which is not established anyway.

  • ericriley

    Well – I would add more of the same, but what more needs to be said? None of the three premises really stands, so any conclusion drawn from them is suspect.

  • Rob

    #2 is already bogus, see all the infinities in math. “Proof” fails.

  • Stevarious

    I definitely agree with AJS here. The only god we can’t prove exists is a completely non-interventionist one – the moment you propose a god who does things, those things are subject to investigation.

    #3 is also a false dichotomy. There is a third option: direct demonstration – that is, god chooses to make his presence known. How, exactly, he would do this, is unknown of course – but if he’s all powerful and all-knowing, surely he could figure it out. I personally like Matt Dillahunty’s idea that god could write words in the sky over every part of the world announcing his divinity in letters that appear to the reader to be whatever language they can understand – but even that is subject to some level of skeptical investigation.

  • http://sidhe3141.blogspot.com sidhe3141

    Sure it’s possible.
    1. Devise a list of specific and testable miracles.
    2. Pray separately for each miracle on the list to happen within a specific timeframe.
    3. If the miracles happen significantly more often with prayer than without, there’s your proof.

  • King of New Hampshire

    As far as infinity being understood mathematically… no. It isn’t. Infinity doesn’t “exist” in math. It’s just a term used to say “any value above, below, on to either side of this value is valid.” This is the basis of limits in calculus. You can’t divide by zero, but any number, no matter how small, on either side of zero is just fine, even 10^-google. But that just means the term is acceptable to mathematicians. They’re still no closer to explaining why 0.999(to infinite regress) is equal to 1 (yes, equal to, not close enough to accept as).

    But the fact that we cannot disprove God? I think Shook is redefining God so as to make his point. The God of the Bible, big G God, is not infinitely powerful.

    “And the Lord was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.”
    —Judges 1:19

    But more to the point, this God has been given credit for certain events, such as Sodom and Gomorrah, that can be investigated. The God of the Bible has been debunked, as we have found many of the events attributed to him to be fiction.

    Certainly, I can tell my wife that a truck crashed through our house while we slept. She can look and see the house is fine. I can then say that the truck had infinite powers and infinite qualities, so she can’t prove that the truck didn’t put the house back together again. I hope you see how stupid this story is, because Shook’s argument can prove the existence of a house smashing ghost truck can never be argued against successfully. If anything, any stupid story at all, can be true based on your philosophy, your philosophy is absolutely useless.

    • SAWells

      Your comment indicates you know less maths than you think you do. Read up on infinite sets. Also, 0.999… = 1 is provable and not problematic – they’re two different notations for one number, not two different numbers, much as 8 in base 10 is the same number as 100 in base 2.

  • David

    Dan,

    Based on his discussion of premise 1, “direct understanding arguments” are arguments based on religious experience. Judging by his discussion of premise two the “indirect demonstrations” are the five ways and variations that argue that the existence of a certain finite phenomenon requires the existence of an infinite being to cause it.

    One quibble: If I am right about all this, then premise 3 is false because the ontological argument is in neither of those categories. He might think the ontological argument fails, but he needs another premise saying why it fails.

    Regarding premise 2, I take it his defense of it is the Hume point that no finite phenomenon requires explanation by an infinite being. A sufficiently great but still finite being will do. Perhaps Hume’s arguments have force against certain design arguments. But it seems to me that “Hume’s point” is irelevant to the attempt to show what goes wrong with, say, the cosmological argument. Let me try to sketch why I think that is. Most of the five ways are trying to establish that any finite being precisely as finite (regardless of how great) depends on something else for its existence, and it tries to argue that no set of finite beings, all of which depend on something else for their existence could exist unless an infinite being existed.

    Let’s sketch the premises thus:

    1. Finite beings exist
    2. Finite beings cannot exist unless there is an infinite being
    Hence, an infinite being exists

    I’ll sketch a defense of premise 2, not for the purpose of showing that such a defense works, but for purposes of showing that the Hume point is irrelevant to showing why it doesn’t work.

    The defense requires the familiar premise:
    2a Every finite being depends on another for its existence which other being does not depend on it.

    -Consider finite being A. Given the 1 and 2a there is such a being and it depends on another being B whose existence does not depend on A.

    -B is either finite or infinite. If B is finite then it depends on another being, a being which is not A. Call it C. C doesn’t depend on B, and let’s assert, any being whose existence depends on B.

    -It seems that if you continue this series with only finite beings then the conditions of the existence of at least member cannot be met, and hence the conditions of all the members of the series. It seems that the only way to meet those conditions is with a being who itself does not depend on another being for its existence, i.e. an infinite being.

    The above reasoning might not work, but it is not clear to me that the Hume point illuminates at all why it doesn’t work. The Hume point does indeed entail the denial of a key premise – that any finite being depends on something else for its existence, but doesn’t illuminate why that premise is false. Hume’s point attempts to establish that for every finite being, some other finite being can explain its existence, but the denier of the cosmological argument is committed to the stronger claim that some finite beings don’t depend on anything at all and hence require no explanation. I don’t see how Hume helps us settle that dispute.

    I have issues with the discussion of premise 1 as well. My first issue is that the stated premise doesn’t express well what he is actually trying to defend. The premise seems to rely on the idea that a finite being could never grasp what a being of infinite power is. As I understand his discussion, what it tries to establish is the claim that no one could know that they have had a veridical experience of an infinite being, which is different. Regarding the substance of what he does defend: that no finite being could know that they have had a veridical experience of an infinite being. He does not argue for the stronger claim that no one can have a veridical experience of God. And indeed if we are even mildly externalist, we should think that if we can have a veridical experience of God then such a veridical experience could deliver warrant for a belief that God exists. What we still might not be able to know in such a circumstance is the higher level proposition that we have had a veridical experience. And perhaps Shook’s thought is that we need that higher level knowledge if we are going to prove, i.e. construct an argument, that God exists. (Or maybe he has just made a levels-confusion, I am not sure). As I understand Alston, he argues that as long as our experience of God is veridical, our warrant for the higher level claim that it is veridical is comparable to the warrant we have for the higher level claim that our senses are reliable. Alston may be right and he may be wrong, but it’s a subtle case against Shook’s defense for premise 1, and the ways of denying Alston’s argument bring some costs.


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