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 Martin has graciously consented to offer this previously unpublished essay to Daylight Atheism.)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.

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About Adam Lee

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