Who Says You Can't Disprove God?

By Michael Martin

(Editor’s Note: Welcome to Daylight Atheism’s newest guest author! Most of you, I hope, have heard of Michael Martin, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Boston University and prominent author of books and scholarly papers defending atheism and naturalism. Some of his many published works include Atheism, Morality and Meaning (2002), The Big Domino in The Sky and Other Atheistic Tales (1996), The Case Against Christianity (1991), and Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990). His homepage can be viewed at Internet Infidels. Dr. Martin has graciously consented to offer this previously unpublished essay to Daylight Atheism.)

Recently I was astonished to learn that two modern books written from an atheistic point of view, Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006) and Richard Dawkins’ best seller The God Delusion (2006), maintain that it is impossible to disprove God’s existence. Thus, Dennett writes:

“Philosophers have spent two millennia and more concocting and criticizing arguments for the existence of God… and arguments against the existence of God… I decided some time ago that diminishing returns had set in on the arguments about God’s existence, and I doubt that any breakthroughs are in the offing, from either side” (p. 27).

“[T]he goal of either proving or disproving God’s existence [is] a quixotic quest” (p. 246).

And Dawkins says:

“That you cannot prove God’s nonexistence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the nonexistence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable” (p. 54).

“God can be neither proved nor disproved” (p. 54).

One cannot disprove the existence of God? I thought that was exactly what I had been doing in Argument Alley, a column I wrote in The Open Society (a New Zealand humanist magazine) and what I had done in chapter 12 of my book Atheism. When Ricki Monnier and I founded The Disproof Atheism Society (DAS) in 1994 – a group that met monthly to discuss disproofs of God’s existence – we thought our society was correctly named. After all, since 1994 DAS has met on a monthly basis to discuss what we took to be disproofs of God. When in 2003 Monnier and I edited the anthology Impossibility of God, we believed we were reprinting disproofs of God’s existence. Does this mean that I am suffering from some strange misapprehension or delusion? Or are Dennett and Dawkins misinformed?

Now, according to one dictionary, to disprove something is to show it is incorrect. According to another, to disprove something is to establish that it is false by argument or evidence. These definitions do not presume one must show something to be incorrect conclusively or with absolute certainty. Nor do they assume that to disprove something, one must establish it is false by a deductive argument. Presumably, an inductive or probabilistic reasoning would suffice. Nor do they entail that one must show that God’s existence is impossible. Showing that God’s existence is possible but unlikely will do.
    
Given these definitions it is hard to understand what Dawkins and Dennett mean. Dawkins presents and defends a probabilistic argument against God (see Richard Dawkins, “The Improbability of God” in Martin & Monnier (ed.), The Improbability of God). According to the dictionaries’ definitions cited above, he presents and defends a disproof of God. He says: “That you cannot prove God’s nonexistence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the nonexistence of anything.” Dawkins’ use of the phrase “absolutely prove” suggests that he is wrongly assuming a proof of God’s nonexistence must be certain.

It is possible that Dawkins’ certainty phobia is based on a confusion between two kinds of certainty — one hypothetical and one not. Hypothetical certainty exists:

1. If true premises entail a conclusion, then it is certain that the conclusion is true.
2. If a statement is inconsistent, then it is certain that it is false.
3. If a statement is a tautology, then it is certain that it is true.

This hypothetical certainty should not be confused with the categorical uncertainty of the premises.

1′. One cannot know with certainty if the premises are true.
2′. One cannot know with certainty if a statement is inconsistent.
3′. One cannot know with certainty if a statement is tautology.

For example, although one cannot know with certainty if the concept of God is inconsistent, one can know with certainty that if it is, then there is no God.

The Impossibility of God distinguished several ways in which the concept of God can be inconsistent. However, two straightforward ways of showing a contradiction are either by showing that one divine attribute conflicts with another, for example being all-good and all-powerful, or by showing a contradiction in one divine attribute, for example being all-knowing. There are many examples of such arguments in the philosophical literature, many of which are republished in The Impossibility of God.

The first extensive discussion of arguments based on inconsistencies in the concept of God goes back to Baron D’Holbach in The System of Nature (1770) who called the concept of God “an ocean of contradictions.” Dennett and Dawkins do not seem to be aware of this long tradition of Disproof Atheism. In addition, as far as one can determined, neither Dennett nor Dawkins give any arguments for their belief that no disproof of God is possible. The closest to an argument is when Dawkins says: “That you cannot prove God’s nonexistence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the nonexistence of anything.” However, as we have seen, absolutely certain proof is irrelevant. Once this is understood, would Dawkins really deny that one could prove the nonexistence of a round square or a brother who is not a male sibling? One shows that a round square and a brother who is not a male sibling are inconsistent ideas.  Some atheistic arguments show the same thing, i.e., God is an inconsistent idea. Dawkins is right to suggest that atheistic arguments are often probabilistic. Indeed, Monnier and I recently published an anthology of such arguments, The Improbability of God (2006), which contains a paper of Dawkins giving a probabilistic argument for atheism. But Dawkins goes wrong in denying this is a disproof and neglecting the existence of disproofs of God based on inconsistencies in the concept of God.
    
Although such inconsistence disproofs show that belief in God is irrational, it is unlikely that if they became well known they would convert believers to nonbelievers. Religious belief is often maintained in the light of powerful objections. But this psychological fact does not refute the claim that the concept of God is inconsistent. Second, showing that the concept of God is inconsistent is based on more subtle and more indirect arguments than showing that the concept of a round square is inconsistent. The concept of a round square is inconsistent on its face. The concept of God is shown to be inconsistent only by philosophical explication and analyses. Because of these factors, inconsistence disproofs of God are less certain and more controversial than disproofs of a round square. But this does not show that such disproofs of God are impossible and only probabilistic disproofs against God’s existence are sound.

Dennett maintains the Darwinian perspective does not prove that God could not exist but only there is no good reason to suppose God does exist. Dennett seems to link disproof of God’s existence with showing God’s existence is impossible. True, some disproofs do show this; the inconsistence disproofs do. But many others do not. For example, the evidential argument from evil does not attempt to show that God could not exist but that it is unlikely that he does. It is also possible to show that the existence of God is unlikely by considerations based on Darwin’s theory (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/evolution.html). Some of these Darwinian disproofs show that Dennett’s conclusion – that one can use Darwin’s theory only to show there is no good reason to believe that God exists – is incorrect.
    
Who says you can’t disprove God? Of course, theists and agnostics do. But, as we have seen, some atheists do as well. They should know better.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.silentdave.net Dave Holloway

    Good to see you’re still writing, Dr. Martin! Welcome to the blogosphere!

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Having read (most of) The Impossiblity of god, I’ve come to know some of the great disproofs of the concept of god and I regularly use some of those arguments. But, most of those arguments rely on using attributes of god, like omniscience, omnipotence, etc. Would it be correct to say that the theist could jettison some of those attributes and continue to hide their god in the nooks and crannies of the universe as to make their god impossible to disprove? IOW, they can always modify their concept of god until it makes no impact on the world thus rendering it beyond disproof, right? I had always thought that’s what Dawkins was speaking of. True, why worship such a god, but OTOH, deists still believe in this god.

  • mikespeir

    I wouldn’t dare to suppose my feeble thoughts can begin to approach the thoughts of Michael Martin. I see the force of his reasoning and have to suppose he’s correct. I think, though, that when I tell someone I can’t disprove God’s existence I’m seeing things from the perspective of the hearer. I was a believer myself at one time. Then, Martin’s arguments wouldn’t have fazed me. Why not? Because I knew God existed and didn’t trust human reasoning against my experiential knowledge. Surely, somewhere there was a flaw in the anti-God arguments that was just too fine for the mind–his or anyone else’s–to take hold of. (This is pretty much what OMGF is saying, too, I think.)

    What I’m really doing with “I can’t prove God doesn’t exist” is conceding that I have no argument that will sway the True Believer. In other words, “I can’t prove to you that there is no God.” (And, yes, Martin dealt with that in his essay here.) Perhaps that’s more the fault of the believer than of the argument.

  • Polly

    OMGF said what I was going to say. God’s a slippery sucker; or, at least, his followers are. Every time you think you’ve got him pinned, they redefine him. Until, at last, he’s a teapot orbiting the sun…which is invisible…and not THIS sun.

    (The name “Dr. Martin” rang a really curious bell. He was the founder of the Christian Research Institute. Then I remembered that was Dr. Walter Martin. I was totally confused for a second.)

  • Freak

    I think OMGF’s argument is more that while it’s possible to refute the existence of some specific gods, it’s impossible to refute the existence of god in general. (Deist beliefs, as I understand them, are probably irrefutable.)

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    That’s what I was asking about, yes.

  • http://humanistdad.blogspot.com HumanistDad

    Prove that 1 + 1 does not equal 3, then prove it does not equal 4, then 5, then ‘-6.87′ …. You cannot prove something is NOT equal to something, you must, instead, prove something IS equal (or true). Therefore you cannot disprove god (which god, which characteristics of god?). Instead you must prove that a given god exists.

    And, as we all know, there is no evidence for ANY god. However, this does not mean that no gods exist. First, we must hypothesize a god then prove its existence. None of the gods so far have been proved to exist. So, I can conclude that the likelyhood of any gods existing is exceptionally small but not zero.

  • MC

    Dr. Martin,

    A few serious questions:

    Although you are a professor emeritus, I am wondering, other than this, what you have been up to in the past few years? “The Cambridge Companion to Atheism” was well done; can we look forward to any new publications from/involving you–journal articles, essays, books, etc.–apart from these (admittedly exciting) blogposts?

    I have been interested in them for the past decade, and, since the publication of “The Impossiblity of God”, I was wondering: what is new in the field deductive atheological arguments?

    Graham Oppy recently published a critique of your 1991 tome on Atheism; are you preparing a response of any kind?

    Concerning said book: comprehensive as it is, are you working on any supplementary arguments or papers in response to new research in the philosophy of religion, specifically, regarding new arguments defending theism (e.g. responses to Bill Craig (admirable) productivity in the past eighteen years, Swinburne’s and Plantinga’s work up to the present, recent, sophisticated attacks on Naturalism, etc.)

    I excitedly look forward to your engagement here; it is deeply refreshing and reassuring knowing that you are still active.

  • http://aardvarkzone.com/holtblog Foster Foskin

    I don’t exist. Therefore I am not.

  • Christopher

    Assuming that you are talking about certain concepts of “god” you can disprove their existence as they have clearly defined attributes. But what about “god” concepts that are more vague and nebulous? What of “god” concepts that bear no attributes decernable to the human mind – a “god” that may exist in some from but is presently unknown to anyone?

    While it’s impossible to conclusively disprove those “god” concepts, it’s more than safe enough to adopt a “who gives a fuck” position – “god” concepts that poorly-defined can be treated as though they did not exist even if they did exist as the consequenses of belief or non-belief would be about the same.

  • Stephen

    I’m with the other commenters. If by “God” one means specifically the Jehovah described in the Bible, then yes, one can disprove his existence. But if one does, then hordes of Christians will instantly accuse one of being “unsophisticated”. I’m a little disappointed that Michael Martin doesn’t make it clear (unless I’ve read over it twice) which “God” he is referring to.

    Dawkins says (I can’t quickly find the exact quote) that he is addressing all supernatural gods, and in that context I think he is quite right to say that the existence of god cannot be disproved.

    I think the only way of tackling that is to get the specific believers one is addressing to first put down on paper precisely what they think the attributes of “god” are. Then you can address every redefinition by waving the piece of paper and saying “oh no, he’s not – you just told me.”

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    So Dr. Martin just spent a whole essay refuting Dawkins and Dennett. Not refuting their arguments, but rather refuting their differentiation between “disproof = argument indicates that God probably doesn’t exist” vs “disproof = argument means 100% certain that God doesn’t exist.” I’m sorry, but that felt like a great waste of time.

  • Quath

    I agree that you can disprove some gods by its characteristics, you can not disprove all gods. As Freak points out, a Deist god would be very hard to disprove.

    If you are speaking as a scientist, you can not claim something is absolutely true or false based on probability. So Dawkins appears correct to me in the claims he makes because an argument based on probability has some chance of being wrong.

    You can also never prove God with 100% confidence either. If you showed God to me and had him burn bushes and part seas and all sorts of other Godly stuff, I could just claim that I am hallucinating or that I am stuck in the Matrix.

    Logically, the agnostic position should apply to everyone (which kind of makes it meaningless as a label). I think that if we all make the assumption that observation gives a glimpse of reality, then we can start proving and disproving things from there.

  • http://www.synapticplastic.blogspot.com InTheImageOfDNA

    This has basically been stated above but I’ll put it another way maybe bringing with it some helpful distinctions. I think a traditional theistic god is refutable because this god is defined with attitudes and with powers that regularly make themselves known in the world e.g. answered prayer. Think of Theos here as a concept that can be represented as a Venn diagram circle the size of the universe that encompasses Earth. When beliefs about Theos have been shown to be false (e.g. answered prayer as sampling error) then it follows that since this god does not exist on Earth then a god with these attributes does not exist anywhere. Now a deistic god, as has been stated above, does not have attributes that necessarily have to overlap with observation. And it is this type of god, I think, that Dawkins has in mind that one cannot disprove.

  • http://collapsingwaves.wordpress.com Brad

    It’s interesting how theists like to use an ambiguous, attribute-empty, detail-void philosophical thing in some proofs of God. This type of “thing” is nearly infeasible to argue against because it isn’t defined with any essence to work with. Once you have something to work with, it gets sticky for the theists. (i.e. God of the Bible.) The question of what a god is pushes us to ask Who designed the designer? Who created the creator? How do we know the “unmoved mover” is unmoved? How do we know the “first cause” is the first cause?

    In the newsletter The Free Mind, Mark Vuletic wrote the article Is Atheism Logical? in response to Hanegraaff’s article of the same name, and it ended this way:

    1. One can prove with certainty that an entity does not exist if (a) the concept of that entity is incoherent, or (b) the existence of that entity is logically incompatible with obviously present states of affairs.

    2. One can be rationally justified in claiming that an entity does not exist without being certain that it does not exist. This justification comes from (a) the improbability that that entity exists given various states of affairs, and/or (b) the principle of parsimony coupled with a lack of evidence for the existence of that entity.

  • prase

    When you ask an average person what constitutes a “proof”, the answer will probable be formulated somewhat like “an absolutely convincing evidence, something which confirms the statement beyond any doubt”. In practice, however, proofs are far from that. We can say that proof may mean “an evidence which complies with some widely recognised standards appropriate for the context”. In mathematics the standards demand deductive reasoning from some axioms. At a trial, when you try to proove the guilt of a suspect, a proof may be a fingerprint, a testimonial of an eyewitness or any other type of evidence which is considered proof by the law which defines the standards here. It is this meaning of proof which is really useful, since the “no doubts proof” cannot be achieved.

    People defending a theory they are emotionally attached to are usually biased in judging the evidence. If the evidence points against their theory they often demand standards of proof that are inappropriate for the context, like demanding mathematical proof of god’s non-existence, or even 100% certainty. On the other hand they are more likely to accept much weaker standards when considering evidence in their favour.

    So, although the essay is in fact only about the meaning of the word proof, I think it is still not empty, even if it only points out that there is no reason to apply mathematical standards or unrealistic definitions of proof to religion.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Actually, Dawkins does address at least one disproof of God — it was one relating to the impossibility of simultaneous omniscience and omnipotence, I believe.

  • Oz

    Sorry, but I have to disagree. It is certainly possible – easy in many cases – to prove that specific gods don’t exist. I happen to think that “God” is one of them (ie, the Abrahamic one). This possibility hinges on logical falsifiability; if a god is described in a way that conflicts with the evidence at hand, then yes, it is disproven. But I can describe an infinite number of gods that are literally unfalsifiable. That doesn’t mean they’re worth believing or worshiping, but don’t tell me you can prove them false – that’s what unfalsifiable means.

  • http://collapsingwaves.wordpress.com Brad

    You disagree with who, Oz?

  • John Nernoff

    prase says; …At a trial, when you try to proove the guilt of a suspect, a proof may be a fingerprint, a testimonial of an eyewitness or any other type of evidence which is considered proof by the law which defines the standards here….

    N: I doubt that any law defines eyewitness testimony as a standard of proof. Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable as demonstrated by the many DNA based reversed convictions originally achieved by “eyewitness” testimony. The “New Testament” is such another spurious mishmash of so-called eyewitness testimony.

  • Oz

    From the look of it, none of the commenters. I guess I should have read before posting.

  • Warner Carter

    Nice discussion, for lawyers and people in debating societies. “Showing that God’s existence is possible but unlikely will do.” Well fine, establish a standard other than proving God does not exist, then claim to prove that. To coin a phrase, “not ready for prime time”. You did not prove that God does not exist.
    In my opinion, which I do not have to prove, people who do not believe in God are uncomfortable with the idea of any intelligence source other than the words they hear in their head. Since this is all they want to see, they have no capacity to discern the movement of spirit. Haven’t you ever wondered why it is almost all societies throughout history believed in God? And maybe you can answer this question, why have so many people wanted to be like some kind of God and have total power, to be the source of authority? As described in Genesis, that is the fall of man. Obviously understanding life in the context of such wisdom is only for the ignorant.

  • Leum

    I have to disagree with this essay, too. Christianity (and AFAIK Islam and Judaism) has been very careful to define its god with many attributes, one of which is “cannot be proven or disproven. In fact, the fact that you’re even asking that question proves just how unsophisticated you are. Haven’t you read [insert name of theologian here]‘s book [insert name of apologetic essay/book here]?”

    It’s really a pretty nice trick. Whenever some attribute is shown to be inconsistent with reality or logic, they can just say “oh, but you don’t understand the real definition of omnipotence,” or “ah yes, that is one of the great mysteries of our faith.” It’s not intellectually satisfying, but it does remove God from the realm of proof and disproof.

    Of course, this really applies more to liberal theology than fundamentalist, but the fundamentalists are more than willing to borrow from the liberal theology they claim to hate when it suits them.

    Greta Christina has a great post on this: The Problem of Unfishness. The post is more about the problem of evil than proof of God, but the same concept permeates all of Christianity.

    Note: I’ve focused on Christianity because it has the sort of God that I believe Prof. Martin is discussing.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Warner Carter,

    To coin a phrase, “not ready for prime time”. You did not prove that God does not exist.

    This essay was not proving that god does not exist, that was not the intent. It hardly seems useful to criticize an essay for not doing something it never set out to do. If you’d like to see some disproofs of god, presumably yours included, I suggest you read “The Impossibility of god.”

    In my opinion, which I do not have to prove, people who do not believe in God are uncomfortable with the idea of any intelligence source other than the words they hear in their head.

    And you would be quite wrong on that score. I’m quite comfortable with many intelligence sources outside of my head, and I readily admit they exist (as I’m sure everyone else here would readily agree). They are called other people and animals. So, you don’t have to prove that you are right because you’ve just been disproven and it’s sort of moot.

    Since this is all they want to see, they have no capacity to discern the movement of spirit.

    Huh? I’m sure all the scientific instruments that we use also don’t want to see?

    Haven’t you ever wondered why it is almost all societies throughout history believed in God?

    It’s called fear of the unknown/fear of death.

    And maybe you can answer this question, why have so many people wanted to be like some kind of God and have total power, to be the source of authority?

    So many people meaning how many?

    As described in Genesis, that is the fall of man.

    Um, no. The fall of man was gaining knowledge. god wanted to keep us fat, dumb, and ignorant, but when we gained knowledge of morality, he flipped out and banished us from Eden.

    Obviously understanding life in the context of such wisdom is only for the ignorant.

    What wisdom? And, no one here called you ignorant. What I will say is that your beliefs are irrational.

  • mikespeir

    Warner Carter:

    Here’s a gentle tip. Whenever you come onto an atheist site to proselytize, look around first and make sure your claims haven’t already been ripped to shreds elsewhere on-site. It’ll save us all some time and aggravation.

  • Brad

    Leum: Try as some might, Christians have failed to define their god totally away from scrutiny. For one, the Bible makes that fairly difficult. If we were talking about agnostic deism, I might think differently.

    Also to Warner Carter: I’ll be blunt. If you think you don’t have to prove your prejudices because us atheists really know them to be true deep down in our hearts, you’re flat-out wrong. The superstitious inferences outlined in your post also do nothing to sway us, as a great number here have already seen them before and explained them better than the supernatural. Welcome to Daylight Atheism!

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    You can squeeze the evidential gaps so small that any god worthy of the name would be unable to hide. Maybe we have already done that, but I guess it depends how impotent you will allow a god to be.
    The harder argument to refute is that an omnipotent god deliberately designed the universe so as to appear to us that he didn’t exist. Then for the usual ineffable reasons decided to insist we worship him anyway; you know – on faith.
    I’m with Dawkins on this, impossible but trivial.

  • Polly

    @Warner Carter,
    Are you for real? I feel like you’re an atheist playing a strawman. That’s how bad these “arguments” are.

    In my opinion, which I do not have to prove, people who do not believe in God are uncomfortable with the idea of any intelligence source other than the words they hear in their head.

    You made a statement about what’s in other people’s heads based on absolutely nothing. Now who’s only listening to the words in their head?

    Rather smug for someone who has missed the glaringly obvious point of the OP, which was not to prove god doesn’t exist, but to define the parameters of “proof.”

    Haven’t you ever wondered why it is almost all societies throughout history believed in God?

    Societies throughout the world have either been pantheists, Buddhists (technically atheist) or polytheists. Seems like your god should have hired a better PR firm cause no one was worshiping him or anything even like him for thousands of years up through the present.

    why have so many people wanted to be like some kind of God and have total power, to be the source of authority?

    Absolute authority, or seeking it, is a very human trait. It’s one of the worst traits of the human race. It’s no surprise that a human-invented god would demand unqualified obedience. What makes you think there’s any divine inspiration for powerlusters?

    Obviously understanding life in the context of such wisdom is only for the ignorant.

    Your own mouth has spoken it.

  • Arch

    I find it interesting that an atheist upholds that they can definitely disprove God because of contradictions while there are many contradictions and disagreements in the beliefs of atheists regarding the origin of life, the existence of space and time, absolute truth, etc…

  • mikespeir

    I find it interesting that an atheist upholds that they can definitely disprove God because of contradictions while there are many contradictions and disagreements in the beliefs of atheists regarding the origin of life, the existence of space and time, absolute truth, etc…

    Yeah…and? What does this do for your case?

  • Polly

    while there are many contradictions and disagreements in the beliefs of atheists regarding the origin of life, the existence of space and time, absolute truth, etc…

    I know of no cosmologist ever claiming to be omniscient.

  • Arch

    I am not speaking about “my case” at all here… I am interested in the contradictions of your case.

  • mikespeir

    I am not speaking about “my case” at all here… I am interested in the contradictions of your case.

    But–don’t you see?–we don’t claim to have access to all knowledge. All we’ve got to work with is our own human capacities to ferret out truth. On the other hand, believers claim to have received revelations from some god or other. If true, those revelations should never prove false. They certainly should never contradict one another. Yet they frequently do. What does that tell you?

  • Arch

    Theists don’t claim access to all knowledge either… so please address the contradictions among atheists.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Arch
    Science (which you always seem to equate with atheism) is not making a case for absolute truth. It seeks to falsify theories about the way the universe is and continues to do so even if those theories become accepted working models for the majority of scientists. The point of the OP is to question the assumption that the existence of god is non-falsifiable. Most commenters here seem to think it is in an absolute sense, and so do I, which means it’s not science. However the contradictions within the Abrahamic canon are sufficient to discount the existence of that particular version of a god as the bible and the qu’ran claim to be absolute truths, and are patently not.

  • mikespeir

    …so please address the contradictions among atheists.

    Why? Unless you’re using those contradictions against us, why should I bother?

    But, if you’d read my previous post you’d see I actually have. Our contradictions are completely accounted for by the fact that all we have with which to divine truth is our own human abilities. What’s so hard to understand about that? Why do you even mention it?

  • heliobates

    … so please address the contradictions among atheists.

    You mean “please correct my misunderstanding of cosmology, biology, abiogenesis and epistemology?”

    That’s a pretty tall order, Arch, demanding that we overcome your shortcomings.

  • Polly

    Theists don’t claim access to all knowledge either

    But they claim god does. So, if he makes a contradiction he’s shown to be a phony. The same doesn’t work on fallible humans who don’t need to be omniscient to be scientists.

    so please address the contradictions among atheists.

    First off, there’s no contradiction. 100% of atheists, by definition, belive there’s no god. That’s the only criterion to be an atheist. Everything else is about science. If you have a problem with science, take it up with scientists.

    Homogeneity in belief is not a defining characterstic of atheism, that’s what religion is supposed to be.

    Science isn’t a collection of doctrines that atheists are to believe.

    But speaking of science…
    How many answers (and technological developments and diseases cured) have been provided by science? How many by theism? NONE. Note that I didn’t say “theists” but “theism.”

    Theologians will be discussing the same matters 1,000 years from now with no resolution except through violent suppression.

    Science will likely answer definitively many of the questions you’re asking and still thousands of others by then.

    GOD-OF-THE-GAPS: It’s the fallacy you’re committing.

  • Brad

    Please don’t argue about contradictions without actually pointing them out. It’s like swordfighting off of the rooftops of two different buildings.

    Arch, if you believe you have sufficiently pointed out the contradictions in atheism in other threads here, then continue arguing those points on those threads. Unless you bring them to the table here, too, don’t hide behind a wall of fog.

  • valhar2000

    I find it interesting that an atheist upholds that they can definitely disprove God because of contradictions while there are many contradictions and disagreements in the beliefs of atheists regarding the origin of life, the existence of space and time, absolute truth, etc…

    The situations are not symmetrical. While there are some contradictions between theories that address different matters in questions in which they intersect, the currently accepted theories have been extensively validated by the available evidence relevant to each theory.

    Religion and spirituality, on the other hand, are stuff that people made up to feel better and to control others. Some people steadfastly ignore reality in order to cling the their comfortable delusions, while others modify their delusions to be more congruent with reality as it is revealed by science, and then claim that their beliefs were like that all along.

    It’s like we have ample evidence that there is an all-loving god, and ample but different evidence that there is an all-powerful god, and we haven’t quite yet figured out how those two ideas fit together. There is no evidence for either, and they don’t even have consistency to make up for that.

    In other words, science is very good, and is worth the effort to make better, religion is unsubstantiated nonsense from start to fnish.

  • valhar2000

    I mean to write: “It’s [not] like we have ample evidence”

  • MS Quixote

    Dr. Martin,

    If you are lurking around noting responses, it was a pleasure to discover you were the mystery contributor. I was exposed to one of your articles some time ago in philosophy of religion on the evidential argument from evil. Even as a theist, it had a demonstrable effect on my thinking. To be honest, I can recall the exact moment the conviction settled in that the free will and soul making theodicies were insufficient within themselves as solutions to the problem of evil. That may seem foolish to an audience of atheists, but it’s a fairly large shift for a theist.

    Regarding the current post, I agree in principle with much of what is asserted, and always appreciate it when atheists make positive claims. One thing, however, seems ironic, though of perhaps little magnitude in terms of debate. It seems that the only position that could ever be empirically verified, despite widespread claims to the contrary, is some type of theism, or at least some sort of existence that includes a corresponding conscientiousness past the grave. In other words, until the doubtful invention of the supernaturalometer, we all one day will test theories of the supernatural realm personally, with the only actual results being noted by the observer in the event a suitable supernatural realm does indeed exist. Thus, it seems, the supernatural may be empirically verified apart from the philosophic drawing board, a state of affairs it is difficult to conceive of for non-supernatural philosophies, which under the discipline of definiton, includes conceptions of God.

  • heliobates

    It seems that the only position that could ever be empirically verified, despite widespread claims to the contrary, is some type of theism, or at least some sort of existence that includes a corresponding conscientiousness past the grave.

    Come again? How do you propose we empirically verify theism? Hasn’t that enterprise failed rather spectacularly over about 3,500 years? Could you lay out for us a precise research proposal for such an endeavour. I guarantee there’s a Templeton grant in it for you. ;o)

    As for consciousness beyond the grave, have you not read Adam’s excellent A Ghost in the Machine? Neuroscience is in the process of putting “paid in full” to dualism. Or, as P.Z. puts it in a marvelous bit of snark:

    Where is the causal link, equivalent to the action of an enzyme mediating the chemistry of two reactants, between a burst of action potentials traveling down an effector neuron and his invisible, immaterial, zero-energy spirit, soul, or ghost? Does his soul carefully reach in and change the conformation of a g-protein, phosphorylate CREB, or open an ion channel? If he’s going to postulate a supernatural agent outside the material brain, by his own reasoning, he’s also going to have provide a link through which that magical cause can give rise to a mundane effect. No such link exists — and its proponents will quickly backpedal away from any consideration about how that link would work, because that makes their ghost a material and testable presence in the world.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Actually, I think Quixote is right. I don’t think he’s proposing a specific plan of experiments to prove the existence of God; I think he’s saying that God’s existence could, hypothetically, be verified in some spectacular fashion, while it’s hard to imagine any event that could do the same for atheism. That makes sense to me.

  • heliobates

    think he’s saying that God’s existence could, hypothetically, be verified in some spectacular fashion

    Oh. I didn’t get that at all.

  • Brad

    In response to Quixote,

    Your idea makes a fair amount of sense to me. But I have to disagree. Based on reason, we can use empirical evidence to disprove certain gods, if we are clever enough. If some conception of god brings about a “negative” hypothesis, then ironically the atheist’s task would be to disprove a negative, and this is logically possible.

    For example: say some god, named Godric, necessarily sweeps all evil into nonexistence, and basically makes everyone utterly happy. That is, G => not(E). But since we empirically observe E, we can safely conclude not(G), i.e. Godric does not exist. (Note: I do not mean to imply that Godric and Yahweh are the same god.)

  • A.J.Blennerhassett

    There are two forms of the Argument from Evil; it is possible that Dawkins and Dennett are conflating them. The first is the well-known deductive argument which can be summed up as (1) An All-God exists (2) An All-God would prevent all Evil (3) Evil exists. Therefore the All-God does not. This syllogism, if it were valid and sound, would disprove the existence of God. Defenders of the existence of God focus on the truth on the second premise “An All-God would prevent all Evil”, because it is possible to dispute the use of the word “all”.

    In defending this premise, atheists tend to slide into using the second form of the Argument from Evil that simply says “The amount of Evil in the world is inconsistent with the existence of an All-God”. This is an inductive argument and inductive arguments can never be proven true in the same way as a deductive argument can. Inductive arguments can be obviously true, as this one is, but not so watertight as to make up a minor premise in a perfect syllogism that proves the non-existence of an All-God.

    Dawkins and Dennett may only be stating that no-one has ever made the deductive argument work perfectly, and that the inductive argument – used extensively on this site – does allow some wriggle room for theodicy (even if it is tiny). Not enough to convince atheists, but enough to say the existence of an All-God is not disproved (in the strict sense).

  • Lux Aeterna

    This isn’t related to the post, but I hope the knowledgeable readers on Daylightatheism might provide some responses to the following argument I read on Lee Strobel “The Case for Faith”, provided in the second chapter by William Craig:

    1.Everything which begins to exist has to have a cause.
    2.The universe began to exist.
    3.The universe has to have a cause.

    Strobel claims that this points towards a creator.
    Also, note the wording of the first premise: “begins to exist”. Since God, by definition, never had a beginning (He is eternal, according to William Craig), he is exempted from this argument.

  • mikespeir
  • Mrnaglfar

    Lux,

    Since God, by definition, never had a beginning (He is eternal, according to William Craig), he is exempted from this argument.

    Wow, that’s easy; just claim god already existed forever (based upon absolutely nothing) and you have an argument.
    Let me try:
    “1.Everything which begins to exists has to have a cause
    2.The universe always existed (as energy cannot be created or destroyed)
    3.Therefore, the universe didn’t need to be caused”

  • Brad

    In response to Lux,

    1. What causes virtual particles? According to quantum mechanics, they have no cause, and we have yet to find any.

    2. Everything which begins to exist had, at one point in time, not existed. It is absurd to say the universe had not existed in one point in time because time is an internal dimension of the universe. Thus, the universe did not “begin” to exist. The universe has existed at every point in time. The wording here reveals cheap semantic opportunism. To quote Adam’s Unmoved Mover article:

    Nothing about Big Bang theory implies or requires that space, time, matter or energy began to exist at that point after previously not existing.

    Lee Strobel actually came to my mother’s Christ Community church awhile back, discussing “The Case for the Real Jesus.” He was an interesting speaker, but he continuously applied fundamentally flawed arguments with as much force as he could muster.

    Anyway, here’s Internet Infidels’ page on Lee Strobel’s apologetics.

  • MS Quixote

    Based on reason, we can use empirical evidence to disprove certain gods

    Brad,

    I agree completely, which is one reason I applauded the good doctor for coming out and standing on his convictions. Obviously, I as a Christian theist will engage in disproving the existence of certain gods hand in hand with you. There’s substantial truth in the atheist slogan that you just believe in one less god than I :)

    Personally, I much prefer atheists who argue positively for their convictions, “firebrands” so to speak, rather than hiding behind epistemological shields–which I hope you understand is not the same as me claiming that you as an atheist should be forced to prove there is no god to hold an atheist viewpoint. There remains a distinction, however. Utilizing empirical evidence to disprove certain gods is not the same as disproving them empirically, which I am convinced you are already aware of.

    Could you lay out for us a precise research proposal for such an endeavour. I guarantee there’s a Templeton grant in it for you. ;o)

    Helio,

    The Templeton grant should be given to more promising research :) Like I said, the invention of the “supernaturalometer” is highly dubious. But I am saying that within 100 years, barring some unforeseen transhumanism, etc., you yourself will empirically verify the supernatural, if, of course, it exists in some form where your corresponding consciousness survives the grave. It seems reasonable to me that under the same conditions you will not empircally verify naturalism, for obvious reasons. Please understand that I qualified this with the statement above: One thing, however, seems ironic, though of perhaps little magnitude in terms of debate.

    As for consciousness beyond the grave, have you not read Adam’s excellent A Ghost in the Machine?

    I have. In fact, I have read nearly all, if not all, of EM’s essays–some multiple times. I have a space reserved on my shelf for his upcoming book. Great stuff. Highly recommended. Nevertheless, if you dig up the bones of Christ tomorrow, “I would open myself to the gentle indifference of the world” within some Continental Philosophic system, which would still have me arguing with you analytics :) As for PZ, I don’t think this is an appropriate time or place to criticize him or his argument above.

    But, Helio, this is why I linger around this site. Though we have profound differences in thought, at least there is in the main rational discourse here, which represents a large common ground in thought–something difficult to find. In many ways it’s a tether for a theist. And I thank y’all for allowing me to participate, regardless of my theism.

  • Brad

    No – the pleasure’s all ours for your being here, Quixote.

    And, just a thought: by empirical evidence we have ascertained that consciousness is not necessarily tied to memory. Therefore, if “my” (or helio’s) consciousness were to survive the grave, it does not necessarily mean we have personally and empirically found proof of anything. If I go on to the great beyond, or if my consciousness becomes reattached to some other life form in Earth’s history (i.e. reincarnation), but I have no memory of my past experiences, then how am I to know that dualism is empirically supported? I would still be left living utterly in the dark about the fact of dualism.

  • MS Quixote

    I would still be left living utterly in the dark about the fact of dualism.

    Well put, and I agree without reservation.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Gods fall into three categories: disprovable, nodisprovable and possible. Most fall into the first one category disprovable. Even diestic Gods fall into this- they claim that you can have an atonomous intelligence, when in fact intelligence is simply a property of a complicated enough system. Diesm has alot of those problems- their God is basically impossible as it violates the laws of the universe (which admit NO exceptions).

    Nondisprovable are Gods that are supposed to exist… but don’t do anything. They are totally irrational to believe in though and sort of pointless.

    Finally, possible are ones that fall under Clarkes Third Law- (Hallowed are the Ori!) and all that. Most non theistic religions would be like this (scientology).

  • Brad

    Samuel, don’t unfalsifiable and possible gods overlap? I would use this classification of gods:

    1. Logically inconsistent (Most conceivable gods)

    2. Empirically disprovable (Most believed-in gods)

    3. Improbable (Many conceivable gods)

    4. Inscrutable (????)

    5. Probable (Depends on definition of a “god”)

    6. Logically necessary (Unknown – no such reasoning has found any)

    I would say deistic gods lie somewhere around 4. And gods don’t have to obey the laws of the universe. By definition, than can supervene them. (Especially if they are supposedly the creator of them.) The existence of these types of gods is lacking, though, so there’s no reason to believe in them.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Arch is working under the impression that all atheists are scientists and vice versa. Further, he is working under the impression that because theists claim to have all the answers (by invoking “goddidit”) that atheists also do so, especially because all atheists are scientists and vice versa and all scientists are smug know-it-alls that claim to have infinite knowledge about everything. So, these “contradictions” are that scientists don’t know everything even though they claim to in his mind. This, somehow, leads to atheism being wrong and “goddidit” necessarily being right through god of the gaps reasoning. Plus, if two atheists disagree on anything, then atheism is wrong, because theists never disagree on anything…

  • silentsanta

    Prof. Martin,

    In defense of Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, I have two issues regarding your article.

    1. First off, I feel your choice of defining ‘proof’ in a probabilistic manner is unfortunate, because we already have terms such as ‘cogent’ for describing strong, well-supported arguments that are compelling yet not utterly conclusive. And at least in English, I am unaware of any well-known alternative choice to the word ‘proof’ to describe unassailable, conclusive, definitive reasoning from correct premises. I am sure that you have encountered similar semantic differences between parties in debates before, but I feel your picking at words here clouds the issue unnecessarily. If we assign ‘proof’ a weaker meaning, then we will just have to come up with another word to encapsulate the strong meaning, and then we will be back precisely where we began.

    2. I concede that various concepts of God are disprovable via internal inconsistency. I also recall Victor Stenger also saying as much. However, in argument, many theists, when pressed, gradually retreat to a deist concept of God- of the prominent ones, I have seen Dinesh D’Souza blatantly and transparently do so. It is almost as though even though their own ideas are internally inconsistent, and disprovable, the fact that the deist concept of god is ‘not disprovable’ is somehow considered by them to be conductive to their absurd views.
    Further, if atheists focus their efforts on arguing for a disproof of God, even when there are such available (for a certain subset of the varied definitions of ‘God’), this would have the practical effect on many laypeople at least of conceding the burden of proof as lying on the atheist. This misconception of atheists bearing the burden of argument is already extremely widespread and attacking this is at the heart of many of the most prominent ‘New’ Atheist writings.
    We don’t need to trawl through 70000 pages of Henry Darger’s opus to locate inconsistencies before declaring it fiction. Likewise, engaging Religion on its own terms often encourages it to create even more absurd, more tenuous explanations, such as the Roman Catholic churches stance on the ‘two miracles’ of the Eucharist- the first being the physical transformation to the body of Christ, and the second miracle being the wafer’s indistinguishable retention of its original physical form.
    To me, it seems that the heart of the problem with faith is that it is a misunderstanding of the very nature of how truth and falsehood can or should be evaluated, a misunderstanding of how conclusions should best be drawn in the absence of utter certainty. I feel a specific disproof of concepts of ‘God’ via internal inconsistency will fail to address faith itself – this deeply-ingrained, largely unexamined and highly dangerous aspect of our society.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Uh, deist God is disprovable. For starters, I’m pretty sure we have a naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe.

  • silentsanta

    @Samuel: I’m somewhat confused as to how a ‘naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe’ equates to a ‘disproof’ of a deity, even if we’re using Michael Martin’s unfortunately watered-down definition of the word ‘proof’. Certainly I’m sure we agree that a deist god is not the most parsimonious explanation that fits the facts; but that we are even arguing about this is a symptom of stupid semantics.

  • Brad

    I agree with everything you just said, silentsanta. Invoking the idea of probability and “watered-down” proof only encourages the faithful, and fails to take them on full force.

  • silentsanta

    I just wanted to clarify my earlier comment – I do feel that disproofs via inconsistency are perfectly useful for attacking an academic notion of God. However, it is the popular, common conceptions of God that are where the damaging real-world effects lie. These popular, common conceptions of God are much more vague, and poorly thought-out, leaving people room to retreat to even more vague definitions- or perhaps beg the question by simply asserting that “God is mysterious – we can’t hope to understand him”. In this way, everyday theists often avoid ever truly exposing their beliefs to criticism.
    An attack on the foundation -faith itself- will not be deflected by such mincing of words.

  • exrelayman

    When you go to dictionaries to get the desired definition of ‘proof’ you have shown me that you are quibbling unnecessarily about superfine points. A weaker definition of proof does not a stronger argument make. Any Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or Jew would concur with a clear proof from Euclidean Geometry. This clarity and unanimity will not be accorded to any disproof of God. Thus to me, Dawkins and Dennett make more sense in the way they are talking about this. The proof that they fail to understand proof did not prove anything to me (except perhaps that the remark that getting all atheists in unison is like herding cats seems proven – somewhat). Now off on a tangent. This business about what constitutes a proof somehow called up to my mind the line “It all depends on what you mean by home” in the wonderful Frost poem ‘Death of the Hired Man’ which, however great has no theological implications that I know of, so I recommend it here since I don’t perceive it as a candidate for Ebon’s poetic selections.

  • hector

    Of course God can be disproved. I did it on richarddawkins.net/forum/, thread “Free will vs the rule of morality” in Faith&Religion board.

    Religions generally are based on three presumptions:

    - “free will”, i.e. that you are responsible and have to struggle for salvation;
    - “moral order of the world”, which means: there is an eternal and invariable thing called “the will of God”, which once and for all time determines what man ought to do and what he ought to abandon; that the value of an individual or a people is measured by the extent to which they fulfill this will of God; that the destinies of individuals and peoples are CONTROLLED by this will of God, which rewards and punishes according to the level of obedience;
    - the existence of “moral deeds” (“non-egoistic” etc.).

    All these ideas are just errors. It can be proved APRIORICALLY. E.g. to disprove free will you even don’t need determinism, fatalism (necessity vs chance, foreknowledge and such) is just enough.

    You know what it means if there is no free will. And you know what it means if there is no moral order of the world – then, evil is more powerful, and goodness (in the church sense, that is: piety) dies.

    But what is most funny – and what is probably the strongest argument against God ever possible – two ideas “free will” and “moral order of the world” contradict each other…

  • bipolar2

    ** the indescribably Divine makes for the ineffable Nothing **

    Dealing with those mystically inclined, the *I-feel-god-in-my-heart* crowd, and in general all irrationalist believers requires a different approach from dealing with rationalists.

    Their usual spiel: I know that my god exists — but he/she/it cannot be described, or is beyond human understanding.

    The philosopher Wittgenstein, in one seemingly cryptic utterance announced, “A nothing would be as good as a something about which nothing could be said.”

    Spelled out: you claim that something exists, but no property (like, being blue) could ever be ascribed to it. This is the famous Western “via negativa” – negative path to god – also the “neti, neti” not-this, not-this of Hindu mystics. God is not blue, is not evil, is not good . . . .

    Logically, however, a claim that something exists does not ascribe a property to it — or, as you ought to have learned in logic class — existence is not a predicate. (Non-existence is not a predicate either.) Nobody can talk about Nothing. True.

    Nobody can talk about Nothing? Who’s doing the talking here? (Nobody?) And what’s being talked about? (Nothing?) And what did Nobody say about Nothing? Zen Buddhism figured all this out long ago — hence, koans if you’re lucky or a hard slap in the face when you’re persistently obtuse.

    ‘A god exists’ seems to be saying something, but the sentence is meaningless. You might as well be saying bar-bar or saying nothing at all. The Viennese novelist, Robert Musil wrote “The Man without Qualities.” The man who can’t be there. A nobody. Nothing.

    If a god “is a something about which nothing can be said,” then this putative something is equivalent to “a nothing.”

    So-called mystics in India, China, Japan, and even Europe apprehended that any *god* without qualities was nothing.

    And, they said so. And, they were right.

    bipolar2 © 2008

  • Dominic

    I really would have to say that it truly is impossible to “disprove” God. Of course there is nothing wrong with your stance on what can be considered disproof. The flaw in your reasoning is that you assume to know what to consider “God” to be. I believe this is and should be the issue with which to begin to find the disproof. “God” should not be believed to be fully understood. (being an atheist myself, I understand that this doesn’t make sense for something that people just made up in their own minds) This is one of the inferences that should be made of “God” and I believe the fuel to the flame which continues to burn in the debate. Because God cannot be understood by a human mind, it cannot then be defined by a human mind. All you are able to do then is prove how “God” should not be defined.

    A previous post explains about how “nothing can be said” of God is not entirely accurate. Many things can be said of God (and boy howdy are they!) the problem is that there is nothing that can be said of God of any certainty (which is addressed in the post). This, I believe, is the long held belief that God can be neither proved nor disproved.

  • Cidaboy

    Im an atheist an i know that you can’t disprove god because you can’t disprove a negitive like for exsample you can’t really disprove santa, when i hear about the bible i see man made written all over it, you can come up with points to show how patheric the idea is but no u can’t disprove him because hes invisible an stuff

  • Coolguy

    The problem about this is how are you disproving god by saying he is improbable? Our very existence is very improbable as well.

  • Dimondwoof

    My attitude has always been that, although one cannot absolutely disprove the existence of a “god-like being”, one CAN disprove the validity of every religion conceived so far (including xianity). The inconsistency of the literature (i.e. the bible) does a very good job of disproving itself. If the only document that can be used to prove the existence of the xian god is proved to be flawed, that in itself proves that the religion itself is false. If we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the xian god does not interact with our reality (e.g. prayer does not have any impact on the real world; priests are at least as likely to be pedophiles than anyone else; people feel that yahweh gives mankind morals, that based on the bible homosexuality is a sin, but then turn out to be homosexuals, therefore proving that having faith in yahweh does not provide any “inner strength” to overcome personal urges; the fact that “faith” gives no one any better life than lack of faith, etc), that proves that the xian faith is a completely falsifiable, and consequently false, religion.

    I also believe that if one can prove something to be contradictory, that in itself is reasonable proof that thing is nonexistent. “An inconsistency cannot exist in reality; not in part, not in whole”. It is as simple as that.

  • Dimondwoof

    @coolguy – “The problem about this is how are you disproving god by saying he is improbable? Our very existence is very improbable as well.”

    The difference is that there is evidence of our existence. I think the point Michael is making is that not only can god be proved to be “improbable”, but add that to the absolute lack of any evidence that he actually does exist, and you have your reasonable prove of nonexistence. Proof of existence negates it being “improbable”, but when there is no proof of existence (even the slightest circumstantial evidence) along with evidence on nonexistence, that provides reasonable proof of nonexistence.

  • http://raylance.com Ray Lance

    From my blogpost http://raylance.com/science/useful-psychology/does-god-still-exist:

    If God is Omnipotent, as many people believe, He would be able to prove that He doesn’t exist. In which case, someone could claim to have received such a proof in the same way previous people have claimed to have received hallowed communications.

    Such a proof could be like this:

    God can prove this sentence is false.