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More on God, Negatives and the Burden of Proof: Some responses to Mark V

July 13th, 2008 by Matt

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.

Mark writes:

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:

[1] If something cannot be detected by the five senses then it needs to be proven to be true.
[2] 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; [1] and [2] appear to me to have at least two problems (a) they entail skepticism about rational beliefs; and, (b) [1] 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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [1] is self refuting, take the claim explicitly articulated in [1] 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 [1] is true, Mark needs to prove that [1] is true using the method he proscribed. He has not done so. Moreover if [2] is true, the failure of Mark to provide such a proof would mean that neither he nor I nor you should believe [1], 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,

[1] Existence claims can only be known by experiments “conducted using a range of instruments” or by logical arguments.
[2] 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.”

[1] and [2] entail:

[3] God can only be determined by logical arguments.

However, Mark also contends:

[4] “[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 [1] and [2], it follows that, “God’s existence can only be established by the use of logical arguments,” but then [4], 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 [1], 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 [4], 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 [4] 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 [4] is self refuting. Mark is offering an argument for his position. But if [4] 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.

Matt

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6 responses so far ↓

  • Thanks for this post Matt.

  • One doesn’t need to reject God, be skeptical or exalt science to be an atheist. One doesn’t need to take a position on anything to be one. It only(!) takes a lack of theistic belief. To convince someone who hasn’t seen the new Batman movie that it is a good movie, you wouldn’t criticize the arguments or beliefs of those who don’t think it’s a good movie. In other words: Positive arguments are needed for theism. And I don’t see any here.

  • You are right in that you wond’t see any positive arguments for theism here as there is a difference between what is rational for me to believe and what it will take for you to be convinced that what I believe is correct. I think you are conflating the two. Theism is rational even in the absence of positive arguments that you might find convincing; that is the essence of Matt’s position. That said, there are some positive arguments for theism out there, for example Plantinga’s “TWO DOZEN (OR SO) THEISTIC ARGUMENTS” have a few: http://philofreligion.homestead.com/files/Theisticarguments.html

  • Hi Jurgen

    A couple of points.

    1. Your definition of atheism is incorrect. The term refers to a person who believes God does not exist. This is different from the mere absence of theistic belief. The brick wall in my house doesn’t not believe in God, because it does not have beliefs at all, it would be a stretch to call it an atheist. Moreover, your suggestion that an atheist does not need to take a position on anything to be one, is I think, false.(i) the atheist must take the stance that various arguments for the existence of God fail and, seeing many of these arguments are valid in their logical form that would involve denying certain premises. (ii) An atheist will have to believe that theists are mistaken (iii) they will have to believe their own stance is epistemologically better. (iv). they will have to reject any answers to philosophical and existential questions that presuppose the existence of God. Moreover, typically an atheist will have reasons why he or she believes God does not exist; hence atheism will involve accepting these reasons.

    2. Turning to your argument. You argue “To convince someone who hasn’t seen the new Batman movie that it is a good movie, you wouldn’t criticize the arguments or beliefs of those who don’t think it’s a good movie. In other words: Positive arguments are needed for theism.”

    I think there are several problems with this argument.

    First, the conclusion is ambiguous. You state positive arguments are needed. Needed for what? The opening sentence suggests you mean they are needed to convince a person sceptical of theism. But if that’s so it does not address my point: my point is that one does not need arguments to be rational in believing in God. To refute this you need to defend a further premise, that whatever is needed to convince a sceptic of a position is also needed to rationally believe that position. However, if this further premise is true it would actually entail the negation of your position. I am sceptical of atheism; hence if the further premise is true, atheism is irrational until you can provide me with an argument for the truth of atheism (and not just a refutation of the arguments for theism).

    Second, you suggest that merely refuting the arguments against the claim that that bat man is a good movie would not provide adequate reasons for thinking it is a good movie. I think this is correct, it nicely illustrates a logical point: that merely criticising arguments for the negation of a position does not provide adequate reasons for accepting the position. The problem is this claim actually verifies my point not yours. It entails that merely criticising the arguments for theism (which is the negation of atheism ) does not provide adequate reasons for accepting atheism.

    Third, you seem to think the proof is necessary because a person has not seen the movie. If by seen, you mean seen by the five senses (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) then your position is incoherent. It assumes that anything that can’t be seen by the five senses needs to be proved to be rationally believed. But I cannot touch, hear smell or taste, this claim and you have provided no proof for it, therefore, if this claim is true until proof is forthcoming no one can rationally accept it. If on the other hand by seen you mean, know by some non- inferential means the truth of the claim in question. Then I am inclined to think you are correct, the problem, is it does not provide a refutation of my position unless you assume that God cannot be known non-inferentially. This however is exactly what I was claiming so rather than refuting my claim your argument would assume its falsity from the outset and hence beg the question.

    Finally, the whole bat man movie analogy strikes me as odd. Suppose someone had not seen the movie. Would any sensible person really require philosophical or scientific proof it was a good movie before they believed it was. Wouldn’t merely asking someone how had attended the movie suffice? I know of no movie critic who operates in this way. Do you?

    In fact if this analogy is cogent it makes atheism look rather foolish like a person who won’t see a movie until he has scene an acceptable philosophical or scientific proof that it’s worth seeing.

  • Thanks, Matt, for responding!

    “1. Your definition of atheism is incorrect. The term refers to a person who believes God does not exist. This is different from the mere absence of theistic belief. The brick wall in my house doesn’t not believe in God, because it does not have beliefs at all, it would be a stretch to call it an atheist.”

    My definition of atheism may be incorrect to you and perhaps many others, but this is simply how I use the term; referring to people – not objects – who lack belief in a deity or deities. You may use a different term for what I call atheism, but it wouldn’t really change my point.

    “First, the conclusion is ambiguous. You state positive arguments are needed. Needed for what? The opening sentence suggests you mean they are needed to convince a person sceptical of theism.”

    I think you misunderstood me then. What I meant was that if someone speaks out their opinion on something, for example: “I think the new Batman movie is awesome”, “John should be more open towards new ideas” or “God exists” and another party doubts the proposition they put forward by saying something like “I’m not so sure about that” or “Really?”, then in order to come to an agreement, the protagonist (the one who voiced their opinion) needs to come up with arguments for their point of view to come to an agreement with the questioner. The burden of proof lies on the protagonist completely, since the doubter isn’t comitting himself to any proposition (although it could of course be different). Let me just stress once more that to me atheists are all the people who don’t positively commit themselves to the proposition “God exists.” or “Gods exist.”.

    “One does not need arguments to be rational in believing in God.”
    How so?

    “Second, you suggest that merely refuting the arguments against the claim that that bat man is a good movie would not provide adequate reasons for thinking it is a good movie. I think this is correct, it nicely illustrates a logical point: that merely criticising arguments for the negation of a position does not provide adequate reasons for accepting the position.”

    I’m glad we agree on this!

    “The problem is this claim actually verifies my point not yours. It entails that merely criticising the arguments for theism (which is the negation of atheism) does not provide adequate reasons for accepting atheism.”

    My point didn’t include atheism as you define it. Atheists may take position regarding the existence of God or they may not, but the only common denominator between them is that they lack belief in God. Theism is a position, and like you say: “merely criticising arguments for the negation of a position does not provide adequate reasons for accepting the position”.

    “Third, you seem to think the proof is necessary because a person has not seen the movie.”

    I don’t think that though. My point wasn’t about proof or perception, but about the burden of proof and argumentation.

    “Suppose someone had not seen the movie. Would any sensible person really require philosophical or scientific proof it was a good movie before they believed it was.”

    I didn’t suggest that at all. Sufficient argumentation for the proposition “The new Batman movie is great” may be “It is directed by Christopher Nolan.” This argument implies that “Any movie that is directed by Christopher Nolan, is great.” If the doubter accepts both the explicit and implicit part of that argument, then logically he ought to accept the proposition that “The new Batman movie is great”.

  • referring to people – not objects – who lack belief in a deity or deities. You may use a different term for what I call atheism, but it wouldn't really change my point.

    I think Atheism is more than just a group of people who lack belief in a deity or deities. It is not as simple as just a group who says "We don't believe any deity exists" but Atheists have developed arguments, school of thoughts, phillosophy, and so on. It is a belief system.

    I think this is such a big deal to Atheists because they want to boxed all other beliefs in one box.