In my last post I took a swipe at certain popular dismissals of theism on the grounds that “God’s existence can’t be proved.” Mark V offered a measured and thoughtful response in the comments section. We enjoy feedback from our readers and I have always enjoyed his, particularly those on the Euthyphro dilemma and I think Mark raises some interesting points in his latest response. So, in order to advance these issues a bit further I will use this post to respond to Mark V. I do so, in part, because I think the issues he raises reflect broader views of God and religion in our culture.
My position is not that I deny God exists, but that I am not convinced by the arguments that he does exist.
Simply someone claims that God exists; I look about me and cannot see this God so I ask the person to prove this God exists. My response would be the same if the person claimed to believe in ghosts or telepathy.
I will take Mark’s position here as agnosticism, the position that neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. Strictly speaking Mark does not say this, he claims merely that he, “is not convinced by the arguments that God does exist,” however, I assume he means to affirm more than this. After all, there are many theists who find the arguments for God’s existence unconvincing. Some theist’s influenced by Pascal or William James, for example, believe that there are no arguments either for or against theism but nevertheless hold that practical considerations mean one should accept God’s existence. Some, such as Plantinga in God and Other Minds, hold that while the arguments for and against God’s existence both fail, belief in God is justifiably believed in the absence of evidence as a properly basic belief. In contrast to these positions I think Mark V is intending to adopt a position incompatible with theism.
Assuming this, if I read Mark correctly, his comments in this citation presuppose a certain method which goes something like this:
 If something cannot be detected by the five senses then it needs to be proven to be true.
 If something cannot be proven to be true then we should not deny its existence but we should not believe it exists either i.e. adopt some form of agnosticism towards the object.
He applies this method to God and concluding that God’s existence can’t be proved, embraces agnosticism.
I think this objection to theism is problematic;  and  appear to me to have at least two problems (a) they entail skepticism about rational beliefs; and, (b)  is self-contradictory.
Turning to the first of these points, (a), consider the belief that the universe has existed for more than six seconds or the belief that minds other than mine exist. One cannot “see” with the five senses that these claims are true. What we can see is limited to the present and while we can see physical beings engaging in certain behavior, we cannot feel or detect their thoughts or feelings. Hence by  the existence of these objects would need to be proven. However, I think it’s pretty evident from the history of philosophical discussion on these matters that one cannot prove these things to be true.
Everything we see is in fact logically compatible with the claim that the entire universe (including all traces of age) popped into existence six seconds ago or that other people merely behave in certain ways and have no thoughts or feelings at all. Similar things can be said about the existence of physical objects. We assume that certain objects such as trees, logs, rocks, etc exist independently of whether we are looking at them or not. We cannot test that they are there when we go inside or turn our backs as by hypothesis we can only see them when we are looking at them. Their existence would need to be proven and proven from premises that do not assume that there exists anything independent of our senses from the outset. However, given that these things can’t be proven in this manner acceptance of  means we should be agnostic about the existence of trees, logs, rocks and any physical object, other people, the existence of a world that is more than six seconds old, etc.
Turning now to (b), that  is self refuting, take the claim explicitly articulated in  that if something cannot be detected by the five senses then it needs to be proven to be true. Now the truth of this claim itself cannot be detected by sight, hearing, touch, etc. So, if  is true, Mark needs to prove that  is true using the method he proscribed. He has not done so. Moreover if  is true, the failure of Mark to provide such a proof would mean that neither he nor I nor you should believe , but rather be agnostic towards it.
Note also that any proof Mark attempts to offer can only appeal to premises which can be ascertained by the five senses. If they do not, we will be required to disbelieve the premises and hence the proof.
This, then, is what I think is the problem with this kind of critical rejection of theism. The skeptic rejects God’s existence out of allegiance to certain assumptions about what constitutes a rational belief. The problem is that these assumptions are in the same boat as theism is alleged to be; a person who rejects theism because he believes these assumptions is acting inconsistently. Moreover, if these assumptions were consistently applied, almost all knowledge would be destroyed.
Similar things can be said about Mark’s other argument, which I take to be an expression of a very similar line of thought.
People belive in the existence of many things e.g. ghosts UFOs telepathy. To prove these phenomena exist various experiments are conducted using a range of instruments. If these experiments do not detect the phenomena the conclusion is that the phenomena do not exist.
The exception is God. God cannot be detected by our senses or by any instrument. God’s existence can only be established by the use of logical arguments. But then almost anything can be proven or disproven by carefully wording a logical argument.
No one outside the individual believeing in God can conduct a test to confirm that the God the individual believes exists in fact does exist. The existence of God is personal to each individual believing in God.
Here I think Mark’s reasoning is similar to what I criticised above. If I understand him correctly he reasons something like as follows,
 Existence claims can only be known by experiments “conducted using a range of instruments” or by logical arguments.
 God cannot be detected by experiments conducted using a range of instruments” as “No one outside the individual believing in God can conduct a test to confirm that the God the individual believes exists in fact does exist.”
 and  entail:
 God can only be determined by logical arguments.
However, Mark also contends:
 “[A]lmost anything can be proven or disproven by carefully wording a logical argument.”
These premises jointly entail that God’s existence cannot be known. If one accepts  and , it follows that, “God’s existence can only be established by the use of logical arguments,” but then , prima facie rules out the idea that anything can be known by logical argument.
I find the argument fascinating because it is a good expression both of contemporary exaltation of science as sole paradigm of knowledge, seen in Mark’s claims about experiments “conducted using a range of instruments” and his concerns that God cannot be subjected to scientific testing, alongside a kind of relativistic dismissal of all non-scientific sources of knowledge, seen in Mark’s claim that “almost anything can be proven or disproven by carefully wording a logical argument.” I also, predictably, think this mindset is mistaken.
Turning first to , I think Mark’s first premises again leads to skepticism on a wide scale. Take my previous examples of belief in other people or the existence of physical objects that continue to exist when people do not perceive them or the belief in the past. None of these things can be determined by the type of empirical testing Mark refers to, they can only be determined by logical arguments. However, given , no such arguments are ever conclusive as almost anything can be proved or disproved by them. So presumably we should not believe in other people, the past or enduring physical objects.
In addition, in this context one could reflect on what these assumptions do to moral knowledge. Take the claim ‘rape is wrong.’ This suggests that there exists some kind of binding prescription ‘do not rape’ that we are required to follow, presumably one that holds even if I or my society or my peers think rape is a good idea. However, such a prescription cannot be detected by experiments “conducted using a range of instruments,” hence, we need logical arguments.
I happen to think, however, that the claim ‘rape is wrong’ is not self-evident and something that cannot be proved by argument and does not need to be. However, if it can be proved by argument then Mark’s advancement of  suggests that it probably can be disproven by argument and hence we have no real rational grounds for believing that rape is wrong. Surely this is absurd. We do know rape is wrong independent of scientific experiments and independently of logical arguments.
I think Mark’s premise  is self refuting. Mark is offering an argument for his position. But if  is true and almost anything can be proved or disproved by logical argument, it would seem everyone, including Mark, has good reasons for not trusting conclusions based on argument, therefore we should reject his argument.
As a final comment I would like to broaden my comments a bit. I noted above that Mark’s comments appear to reflect an epistemological paradigm which exalts science as the sole method of knowledge and dismisses what science cannot accommodate as a kind of private personal preference. Many Christian thinkers have responded to this charge by trying to show this paradigm can accommodate God. They offer scientific type arguments for God’s existence by appealing to things like the big bang, the fine-tuning of the universe, laws of nature, etc as evidence for God’s existence. While I have some sympathy for this response I am inclined to think that in one sense these arguments are irrelevant as the more important point is to note the paradigm itself is mistaken. In Mark’s case applying the paradigm consistently would rule out not just God but all kinds of knowledge which even an ardent atheist would hold as rationally held. Moreover, the paradigm appears to invalidate itself. Hence, even if it is the case that such methods cannot establish the existence of God the problem lies with the methods and not with theism.