Proof Of God?

A reader writes:

Dear Harvey Ray: Is there proof of God? Can science prove that God doesn’t exist?

Signed,

Hopelessly Devoted

Dear Hopelessly Devoted: No, science cannot. In fact, nothing can. Yet we can be certain that God doesn’t exist — by virtue of the very nature of proof.

The meaning of proof precludes proving something for which there is no evidence.

God is primarily of metaphysical and ethical import. Proof, on the other hand, is epistemological.

Proof is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that admits no alternative.

Proof, by definition, requires evidence. Indeed, proof is evidence.

For this reason, the attempt to prove something for which there is no evidence is a contradiction in terms. The philosophy of science presupposes this principle, but historically, up to the present day, it’s been poorly defended.

You’ve no doubt heard the platitude: “You can’t prove a negative.”

The reason this statement contains a kernel of truth is that proof requires data, as opposed to an absence of data. And that is why the burden of proof falls upon the person making the claim.

If, for example, you claim that little green men exist inside the human brain, and that these green men are responsible, through an intricate process of lever-pulling, for human consciousness, it is you who must prove this — by providing data — and not us who must disprove it.

What you’re really referring to in your excellent question is a thing epistemologists call evidentialism, or the law of the arbitrary.

If the onus of proof were on me, for instance, to prove that these little green men didn’t exist, what, may I ask, do you think that would entail?

I’ll tell you:

Among other things, it would entail that anyone could say whatever he wanted about anything, regardless of data, and I’d have to spend the rest of my life trying to prove him wrong without any data, while he sat back and fabricated more arbitrary claims. And, indeed, many people do just that.

Fortunately for the human race, this is not how the reasoning process actually works.

The proper response to these claims is simply to dismiss them categorically for what they actually are: neither true nor false, but whimsical — that is, arbitrary — until some hard evidence is put forth. But the evidence must come first, before the claim.

That is what you must always remember.

Evidence constitutes proof.

Merely claiming does not constitute evidence; that’s too easy.

Thus, if you claim God or if you claim green men, it is you, not me, who must produce the data.

Epistemologically, there’s no significant difference between green men, God, the Great Spirit, or, for that matter, Grendel.

Which is why for the mystically inclined, fideism is the best bet, although fideism too runs spectacularly aground, but in other ways, less epistemolgic, perhaps, but clearly more dramatic.

12 Comments

  • Dave Cochrane

    February 3, 2010

    Despite this, there are some groundless things that people will nevertheless choose to believe in.

    “Just in case.”

    In case we all finish up being damned to a fiery hell. The precautionary principle.

    But enough about Anthropogenic Global Warming. I digress…

  • Ray

    February 4, 2010

    Not at all, Mr. Cochrane. You’re at your best when you’re divagating (and that’s saying a lot).

  • Edmund Burke

    March 26, 2011

    Mr. Harvey:

    I think we can all agree that the definition of God is a Power outside the universe weilding greater power (enough in fact to create the universe) than the power weilded by Ray Harvey. Even you must agree you did not create the Universe and the thousands of years of scientific thought that have so far been expended for the purposes of reading the mind of God have revealed the laws that God has designed and which you did not. If there were no God why would scientists spend all that time to read His mind? Several books have proven that the whole mathematical design of the universe is specifically designed to lead to life and consciousness, which only a conscious Power would think to create or design. Now unless you are willing to claim you are the greatest power outside the universe who designed and created it, then I think the burden shifts to you to prove there is no power in the universe or outside the universe greater than you and greater than all the other powers, and that no power or force created the universe or created you and me despite all the immense mountain of proof and evidence to the contrary. Balls in your court.

  • Ray

    March 27, 2011

    We can all agree that the definition of God is a power outside the universe weilding [sic] greater power than Ray Harvey? That is God, sir? Well what a disappointment. In addition to which, I’m not so sure we can all agree with that definition of God.

    There is no Power, as you say, outside the universe. The term “outside the universe” has no referent. The universe, as Thomas Aquinas noted, “is the sum total of everything that it exists.” If it exists, therefore, it is part of the universe. If it does not exist, it does not exist.

    “If there were no God why would scientists spend all that time to read His mind?”

    They don’t. Science — all science, including math — seeks to measure, quantify, and expand knowledge. When, for instance, science discovers that water boils at a certain temperature at a certain altitude, and then at a certain other temperature at a certain other altitude, science is not reading God’s mind, or any other such absurd thing. It is inducing and deducing.

    “Several books have proven that the whole mathematical design of the universe is specifically designed to lead to life and consciousness, which only a conscious Power would think to create or design.”

    Uh-huh. Clearly your criteria for proof is at a lower threshold than mine.

    Atheism in its most fundamental form is not a belief. It is the absence of belief:

    “An atheist is not someone who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of god.”

    The onus of proof is (still) on you.

  • Dale

    March 28, 2011

    “An ontological argument for the existence of God attempts the method of a priori proof, which uses intuition and reason alone. The argument examines the concept of God, and states that if we can conceive of the greatest possible being, then it must exist.”

    a priori proof – “involving deductive reasoning from a general principle to a necessary effect; not supported by fact”

    It seems to me one does not prove God, one only believes or not.

  • Dale

    March 28, 2011

    The word “power”, in this context, contrasting Ray to God, can be proven flattering for Ray.
    Ray-
    -I personally received from Ray a Spanish Meritage that was quite tasty, proving Ray has the “powers” of perception (my express tastes) and association (suggest a wine I would like).
    -I’ve personally seen Ray make multiple drinks while carrying on simultaneous conversations, like a master at chess playing many concurrent games, proving Ray has the “power” to interact in complex shifting environments with multiple variables in several time frames.
    -I had the privilege of reading Ray’s novel prior to publication, the files passed directly to me, proving Ray has the “power” to create novel intellectual and philosophical literature. This is not to discount this weblog, but to reiterate it. I trust Ray’s posts originate from his research and keyboard.
    -I work out regularly, and have size and weight on Ray, but prefer him friend as foe, that’s for darn sure, so I think there’s real merit to his athlete claim. Ray has the power to give me pause.
    God-
    -Power to create. God must exist, else why* are WE here? A.k.a. ontological argument, second verse, same as the first.
    -Power to ignore evil, given its frequency and the clear lack of divine intervention.
    -Help me out here.

    *Deep subject, teleological versus mechanistic, for another day.

    Ray, please keep that douchebag recipe ready, I owe you a visit wherein you can demonstrate some of those powers.

  • Ray

    March 29, 2011

    Thank you, Dale.

    Douchebags on me.

  • Dale

    March 29, 2011

    Unfortunately for you, my proofs are purely anecdotal.

  • s.w.may

    April 29, 2012

    Ray, you have provided a sound argument for the non-mysterious part of reality, but your argument lacks an approach at the mysterious, which, even with the progression of science, still exists. “The burden of proof falls upon the person making the claim,” but if everyone makes a claim at the mysterious, then everyone has the burden. A burden, I might add, that cannot be relieved. For example: If you, Dale, and I were to happen by an unexplored cave. I might suggest that the Spaghetti Fairy must reside there; Dale happens to think that it is full of wine; and you argue that nothing is in it at all. Outside of scientific proof, which none of us have, we all must fall on “a little bit of faith” to continue our beliefs, even yours. In this way even Atheism is a form of belief as well. Of course, we can use what we know about other similar caves to arrive at a better conclusion (and hope to refute Dale’s absurdities), but until one of us goes inside (and returns) even a buried treasure is feasible.
    Therefore, all three claims fall under “neither true nor false, but whimsical — that is, arbitrary — until some hard evidence is put forth.” Ultimately, I think you have proved yourself an agnostic rather than an atheist with this essay.

  • Ray

    April 30, 2012

    Your example, Mr. May, provides us with an excellent opportunity to see how the process of discovering knowledge actually works, and I believe it supports my thesis, in the end:

    You, Dale, and I are all three in error to specifically hypothesize what’s in the cave before we’ve investigated the cave.

    As I say in the post itself, evidence must always come first, before the claim.

    In order to properly discover knowledge, when we all three happen by that unexplored cave, we must form no premature conclusions at all — including no arbitrary claims of what might exist inside the cave — until we’ve looked into the cave and uncovered some data.

    An atheist is, literally speaking, “without belief.”

    An agnostic, on the other hand, is, literally speaking, “without knowledge” (gnosis being Greek for knowledge).

    What I’m arguing — and what I maintain — is that a proper epistemology does not ever advocate believing blindly. (The scientists botch this all the time, incidentally.) This is sometimes called “negative atheism” or “the negative definition of atheism,” and it’s the handmaiden of the Onus Probandi principle, as the lawyers say [i.e. the burden of proof], which is why I say the only correct form of atheism is epistemological atheism.

    The difference between agnosticism and epistemological atheism is ultimately this:

    The agnostic says “Maybe, maybe not, I do not know.”

    The epistemologic atheist says “I’m without blind belief.”

    This may sound like a quibble — and I’ve been criticized plenty for hairsplitting this particular point — but in fact a great deal hangs upon it from an epistemological standpoint. The agnostic viewpoint, as we’ve seen, has dire epistemological consequences.

  • Dale

    May 11, 2012

    Okay, well, maybe the cave smelled like wine… maybe Dale just reacted to sensory evidence.
    Fun couple of posts, Ray.

  • Ray

    May 12, 2012

    Thank you, Dale. It’s good to hear from you.

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