A disproof of God

Since at least the European Enlightenment, there have been defenders of a distant, remote version of God. Deists don’t generally have a lot of influence on popular religion, but mainly provide a way of maintaining both intellectual respectability and the ability to call oneself devout.

A common argument in the service of deism is that a miracle-performing God actually works against himself. After all, God is responsible for the Laws of Nature that miracles violate. Wouldn’t it be a more impressive God, a greater God, who accomplishes his purposes for humans without having to tinker with the natural order? Isn’t a God behind the scenes, who accomplishes everything through the lawful order established at creation, a more efficient, more economical, more majestic God? Doesn’t the miracle-mongering, prayer-granting theistic conception of God reduce the Author of the Universe to a second-rate hack constantly in need of editing the story?

If you don’t like Enlightenment deism, similar ideas can be expressed in a more Platonic idiom, where God is all the greater by not being directly entangled with all the imperfections of material existence.

Let’s combine these insights with the profound metaphysical intuitions expressed by the ontological argument.

1. God must be such that no greater being is conceivable.
(Seems reasonable. Stolen from the ontological argument.)

2. A being that accomplishes a purpose indirectly, with less involvement, is greater than one who has to oversee or modify its plans.
(Deists, NeoPlatonists, and a boatload of modern theologians concerned to reconcile God with science seem to think so.)

3. The least level of involvement is no involvement at all.
(There is no minimum level of involvement, as we can always conceive a more indirect approach. This is the same way there is no minimum positive real number. No involvement at all is an infimum, the way 0 is the infimum of the set of positive real numbers.)

4. It is not possible to achieve a purpose with no involvement at all.
(The purpose can still be achieved, but if you’re not involved, not even indirectly, you don’t achieve anything.)

5. Therefore a God that achieved the creation of our universe does not exist.
(If God was at all involved, 1-3 are problems. If God wasn’t involved, 4 is the obstacle.)

In other words, the greatest possible God is a God who does not exist.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03034292023591747601 PersonalFailure

    Not so much “god of the gaps” as “god is the gaps”?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09915579495149582531 exapologist

    For some reason, this post reminds me of a saying from Peter de Vries:

    “It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12892780628815273109 Bunc

    A god so powerful he creates his own non-existence? I love it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06056410184615941086 M. Tully

    An incredibly good refutation of the ontological argument (one I will no doubt use when I’m feeling ornery).

    But how about a more empirically based one? How high is Mt. Everest? Can you conceive of one on earth that is 1 cm higher? And if that mountain existed, could you conceive of one on earth that is just one meter higher?

    Taken to its logical end, there must exist a mountain on earth that is infinitely above sea-level. Yet photos from aircraft and satellites say, “No!”

    The ontological argument is empirically refuted.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled

    And God promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17093711439992855042 UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 5/6/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    All this argument demonstrates is that the greatest possible god must necessarily be an inert god, one with infinite power to shake the heavens but with zero desire to so much as jostle an atom. By the argument, perfection and purpose are mutually exclusive.

    So what do you say about a lesser god, one with the desire to create the universe but with only limited capabilities? All observations point to the idea that IF God exists, he’s certainly less than perfect.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02728011245463463072 Matt Ackerman

    I would question assumption 3. By itself, it is correct, but if it is paired with intent it is sometimes demonstrably false.

    By way of analogy:

    1) The perfect computer technology will use the smallest amount of energy to perform a computation possible.

    2) The smallest amount of energy is no energy.

    3) Therefore the perfect computer technology uses no energy.

    But, of course, the second law of thermodynamics tells us (I think, I’m not a physicist so I could be wrong) that any computation must use some non-zero amount of energy. So, the perfect computer would actually use some energy to perform a calculation.

    The logical minimum is not zero, if the requirement that a calculation is actually performed is taken seriously.

    Similarly, the minimum ‘involvement’ might not be zero if the requirement that a purpose is accomplished is taken seriously.

    The purpose is more important than the lack of involvement.

    Anyway, this is all a philosophical discussion, since I don’t have the slightest idea what logical limitations are put on miracles, since they are devoid of any logical structure, so far as I know….

    PS: HI! From a former president of the Truman free thinkers. Do you know if the free-thinkers are still alive and well, or have they gone kaput?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Pulse: “So what do you say about a lesser god, one with the desire to create the universe but with only limited capabilities?”

    I don’t know of any argument that is proof against all varieties of God.

    Don’t make too much of this argument either. It’s tagged as “satire” for a reason. I don’t think these sorts of arguments are good for much except mocking the philosophy of religion.

    Matt Ackerman: “Similarly, the minimum ‘involvement’ might not be zero if the requirement that a purpose is accomplished is taken seriously.”

    Actually, that’s precisely what the point about minima versus infima addresses. That is, I built number 3 to guard against precisely this objection.

    “Do you know if the free-thinkers are still alive and well, or have they gone kaput?”Kaput, about two years ago.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said “ A being that accomplishes a purpose indirectly, with less involvement, is greater than one who has to oversee or modify its plans.

    This premise sounds weird, for one would say that the exact opposite is true. After all isn’t one who directly prepares their bed greater than one who asks a servant to do it? Isn’t a parent who directly raises their children greater than one who leaves them to their grandparents or who sends them to boarding school? Isn’t one who solves a problem greater than one who waits for others to do it? And specifically speaking of God, isn’t a God who not only creates us but also continues to take interest in us and who builds a direct relationship with us greater than one who creates us and walks away? Isn’t a God who reveals Him/Herself directly to the human consciousness greater than a God who works indirectly through the Bible? Isn’t a God who instead of just indirectly observing the human condition actually comes down to our level and directly and truly experiences human life its joys and its pain all the greater?

    The justification given for that premise is this: “ Deists, NeoPlatonists, and a boatload of modern theologians concerned to reconcile God with science seem to think so.

    Deism or in general the idea that God needs reconciling with science is based on a tripple fallacy:

    1) That science successfully discovers and mathematically models order present in a particular part of the phenomenal world (namely our observation of physical phenomena or, if one prefers, our observation of the physical universe) does not imply that where no such mechanical order is present there isn’t any order present. There is more to the concept of order than mechanical order. For example in a crime scene there may be order present which is not amenable to mechanistic modeling, but still be order that points to a purposeful action and as such serve as evidence for understanding what happened.

    2) The part of the phenomenal world that science studies is only a smallish part of our experience of life, and only reflects our experience of publicly measurable things (our objective observations of physical phenomena). There is also our subjective and qualitative experience of life which is by definition not amenable to scientific study. Here language itself tends to be misleading: As Bertrand Russell made explicitly clear a century ago when scientists speak of “light” they don’t mean the “light” we experience. At best (and only if they hold a particular metaphysical position called “scientific realism”) they mean what it is in objective reality which causes our experience of light. The same goes with concepts such as “space”, “time”, “matter” and so on. Not to mention concepts such as beauty, goodness, value, responsibility, freedom – concepts which are of great importance for us but are literally non-existent for science because they are not objectively observable nor necessary for explaining anything that is objectively observable. The same goes for the entire concept of human consciousness by the way, hence the reason that scientifically minded psychologists tend to embrace behaviorism.

    Now at this juncture a materialist may claim that all of the above are in amenable to scientific understanding via the upcoming scientific study of how the human brain produces our consciousness. But there is no evidence whatsoever that such a study is even in principle possible (see the hard problem of consciousness). Actually there isn’t even any evidence whatsoever that our brain produces our consciousness. Indeed materialism itself implies the possibility of the so-called computer simulation hypothesis according to which it is *not* our brain which produces our consciousness. And finally there is no evidence whatsoever for materialism itself. And to think how often atheists accuse theists of holding beliefs “without evidence”. It’s kind of sobering to consider how we people are perfectly capable of accusing others of doing things we ourselves are doing, while being completely oblivious of this fact.

    3) Even if the entire breadth and width of the phenomenal world, i.e. our experience of life at its fullest, were amenable and were exhaustively amenable to a mechanistic description it does not follow that the objective reality which produces it is mechanistic itself. The shadows projected by reality onto our field of experience may be exhaustively amenable to a mechanistic description without the reality itself being of this nature. As a simple analogy the shadows may be motionless while the reality that produces them may be moving. (Or even the other way around: an unmovable reality may produce moving shadows as in the case that our attention is moving.) Significantly a reality which is free in the libertarian sense may produce a phenomenal picture which appears not to be free in this sense.

    So, why exactly is it that many people, theists and atheist alike, think that God does need reconciling with science? Having I hope demonstrated that this is a fallacy what is the origin of it? I think there are two origins, one more superficial and the other one deeper:

    The superficial origin lies with our tendency to take mythology seriously. So many people, theists and atheists alike, read accounts of how God parted the seas and regularly performed a whole menagerie of miracles – which have gone missing today that we have the scientific means to record them. So the God who is actively interested in us is shown by science not to be active in the physical world and therefore not to be active at all. Hence the apparent contradiction between theism and science, the idea that there is no evidence for God, the copout of Deism, and all the rest.

    The deeper origin lies I think with our tendency to conflate phenomenal and objective reality. This of course is the simplest model of objective reality possible, indeed one that already all normal 3 year olds conceptualize: it seems like we live in this big material world moving our little bodies around, so that’s how reality actually is. Indeed “scientific realism” is just a fancy name for describing the belief of 3 year olds that reality is as it seems (e.g. a drop of water seems like consisting of a huge number of H2O molecules and therefore a drop of water does consist of huge number of H2O molecules). Atheists’ “scientific naturalism” goes just one step further and claims that there is nothing to reality but how it seems. Philosophers from Plato to Kant and from Kant to Russell have made the distinction between appearance and reality, and modern science has made abundantly clear that if material reality exists then it’s nothing like it seems (for example we live in a very colorful world but there are no colors in objective reality, space as it seems to us is flat and local but physical space is neither, and so on). No matter – atheists (read scientific naturalists) insist on their naive worldview of conflating appearance and reality, while believing that theism is the naive worldview.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    Taner: “Don’t make too much of this argument either. It’s tagged as “satire” for a reason.”I already understood it as such. The same goes for my reply.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02728011245463463072 Matt Ackerman

    ==Dr. Edis==

    “It’s tagged as “satire” for a reason.”

    Ah, sorry Dr. Edis, *sigh* I’m carelessly reading a lot of things these days. At any rate, it was amusing, and I’m glad you wrote it.

    On the positive side of things, I think the argument does point to a bit of illogic in the Deist position, even if I wouldn’t base a dissertation on it.

    The freethinkers are kaput? That’s tragic. They made my freshmen year of college bearable.

    ==Dianelos Georgoudis==

    First of all, I think Dr. Edis premise is widely held by many real people, so even if it is weird, you have to take it at face value. You may disagree with it, but that is because you are not a Deists, NeoPlatonists, etc.

    So, Dr. Edis is not defending the premise, but stating that (apparently somewhat tongue in cheek) the premise leads to logical contradictions.

    Of course, if you choose to argue that God is involved in the universe, then you have to defend why this involvement in the universe produces no observable effects, which is a biger problem IMHO.

    As for the rest of your rather lengthy post, I’m not going to respond to respond to just one issues, since I don’t intend to get into a debate about theism in general.

    “[T]here is no evidence whatsoever that such a study [of how the brain produces our consciousness] is even in principle possible.”

    I think any reasonable person will conclude there is ample experimental support that the mind is the product of the brain.

    The are detailed animal studies showing precisely how the brain accomplishes any number of things. Additionally damage to very specific parts of the human brain has very specific behaviour consequences.

    It has been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that your ability to recognize faces and remember the past are entirely the product of your brain. Additionally, we are gaining an unexpectedly easy insight into how your brain produces empathy for others and allows you to plan for their actions.

    So, clearly portions of our cognition are directly produced by the brain. If you choose to attribute the poorly understood facets of cognition to an immaterial soul, then it would be your obligation to postulate how the soul interacts with the brain and explain what computations the soul performs and how.

    There has been some speculation in the air that the next step in the anti-science movement will be to attack the field of cognitive science.

    Over at the endless stream of non sense Uncommon Descent, Denyse O’Leary has posted a series of comments mocking cognitive science.

    I would be very disturbed if I agreed with the forces of anti-science over almost any issue, so I encourage you to analyse your own mode of thinking carefully before you gain the ability to convince yourself that anything you want to be true is true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I had written: “ “[T]here is no evidence whatsoever that such a study [of how the brain produces our consciousness] is even in principle possible.

    To which Matt Ackerman responded: “I think any reasonable person will conclude there is ample experimental support that the mind is the product of the brain.

    Virtually all atheists would agree with you but in fact this belief is false. But not all atheists hold this belief, for example here is what Sam Harris (who let’s not forget was trained both as a philosopher and as a neuroscientist) writes in his “End of Faith”: “ “The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.

    The fallacy at hand is called “affirming the consequent”. It’s about arguments with the following structure:

    1) If P is true then Q would be the case.
    2) Q is the case.
    3) Therefore P is true.

    Here is an example of such fallacious thinking:

    1) If Idi Amin were the President of the US when the 9/11 terrorist attack happened the US government would decide to attack Afghanistan in response.
    2) The US government did decide to attack Afghanistan in response to 9/11.
    3) Therefore Idi Amin was the President of the US when 9/11 terrorist attack happened.

    In the case at hand the fallacy runs as follows:

    1) If the brain produced consciousness then such and such experimental observations would be the case (e.g. injury to particular parts of the brain would cause such and such changes in conscious behavior etc).
    2) Such experimental observations are the case.
    3) Therefore the brain produces consciousness.

    That such a basic fallacy is so common only demonstrates how powerful one’s preconceptions are. Atheists are as a rule materialists which implies that the brain produces consciousness; therefore they see the evidence as evidence *for* the assumption they make, when in fact the logical support is not there. In short atheists too hold beliefs when there is no evidence for it.

    The argument that is needed would have the following structure:

    1) If P is false then Q would not be the case.
    2) Q is the case
    3) Therefore P is true.

    Or in the case at hand:

    1) If consciousness were not produced by the brain then injuries to the brain would not affect conscious behavior.
    2) Injuries to the brain do affect conscious behavior.
    3) Therefore consciousness is produced by the brain.

    The latter argument is logically valid, but premise 1 is now arbitrary. Consider for example the similar argument:

    1) If the light in the room were not produced by the light switch then damage to the light switch would not affect the light in the room.
    2) Damage to the light switch does affect the light in the room.
    3) Therefore the light in the room is produced by the light switch.

    Again, the argument is logically valid but we know that the first premise is wrong.

    Now, as things stand an atheist may assume that, even though there isn’t really any evidence that the brain produces consciousness, at least this hypothesis comports well with a materialistic understanding of reality and that science is capable and will investigate how the brain produces consciousness based on this hypothesis. If science is successful in this then one will have warrant to believe that the underlying hypothesis is true, i.e. that the brain produces consciousness. Unfortunately such assumptions are not only wishful thinking but are demonstrably false.

    Let me use three arguments to demonstrate why science cannot study how the brain produces consciousness, why if materialism is true then probability that our brain produces our consciousness is inscrutable no matter what kind of experimental evidence may be found, and finally why if materialism is true then the most reasonable guess is that the probability that our brain produces our consciousness is low. These are simple and I believe powerful arguments; if the reader finds anything wrong with them I’d very much like to know what. Here they are:

    1) Science does only deal with objectively observable phenomena and assumes the existence of entities the existence of which explains objectively observable phenomena. So for example an existent as basic as mass is not directly observable but its existence is assumed in order to explain a lot of observable phenomena, such as the falling of apples. God is not objectively observable, nor is it necessary to assume the existence of God in order to explain objectively observable phenomena, so the hypothesis that God exists is not required by science. Similarly consciousness is not itself objectively observable, nor is it necessary to assume the existence of consciousness in order to explain any objectively observable phenomenon, so the hypothesis that consciousness exists is not required by science.

    Indeed as consciousness is not required by science in order to explain any phenomenon, there isn’t today any scientific test to ascertain whether consciousness is present or not, never mind the issue of what produces it or how it does it. That’s why no scientist knows whether, say, cockroaches possess consciousness or not. Some people speculate that thermostats may be conscious; this may sound farfetched but the fact is that there is no scientific way to prove or disprove such hypotheses. So the claims that science has already shown that it’s our brain that produces our consciousness, and even that science will be able to show how our brain does it, are not just false but pure fantasy. Nevertheless atheists may trust (as in have faith) that science will in the future find a way to detect consciousness, demonstrate that the brain produces it, and explain how the brain does it. The following arguments show why this won’t happen:

    2) If materialism is true then a particular configuration of matter is capable of producing consciousness just like ours. If so a sufficiently advanced civilization could artificially produce material systems which would produce consciousness just like ours, and given sufficient computational resources such an advanced civilization could have these conscious beings experience and interact with a simulated or virtual environment just like ours, but which is set up by some computer. Therefore it is possible that our own consciousness has been thus artificially created and that the universe we observe is a computer simulation. If it is the case that we exist within a computer simulation then our consciousness is not produced by our brain, because our brain is just part of the virtual universe we experience and does not even objectively exist. Moreover if we do live in a computer simulation no matter what scientific experiments we choose to perform and what their results may be they wouldn’t give us any warrant for believing that our brain produces our consciousness because in fact it doesn’t. Therefore, given materialism a) it is possible that we live in a computer simulation and b) there is no way to use science to ascertain one way or the other. In conclusion, if materialism is true then the probability that our brain produces our consciousness is and will remain inscrutable.

    3) Nevertheless we may make an educated guess about this probability. Given a sufficiently advanced civilization with cheap computational resources it is probable that not one but many simulations of civilizations just like ours have been performed. But then, assuming that the number of real people living in the universe that runs these simulations is comparable to the people alive on Earth today the overall number of simulated people far exceeds the number of real people. Therefore it is quite probable that we ourselves are not real people but simulated people, which means that it is quite probable that our consciousness is not produced by our brain.