Proving a negative


There could be many atheists and theists alike who say we can’t prove a negative. Well, we can and do this several times. In this post, the author quotes W. L. Craig to bolster their case that atheists have not done their homework well.

Craig we are told, writes

The second claim is typically given as the reason why a universal negative cannot be proved: no matter how much knowledge you have acquired, there will always be more facts that you do not yet know, and perhaps the exception is among them. So one can never prove that there is no God. Perversely, this is somehow interpreted, not as an admission that atheism is indefensible, but as a demonstration that it is in no need of defense!

which though they would not want to admit as being true is really the case. Every time atheists have demonstrated that the arguments for god are insufficient as proof, the theist has always redefined god. If they are not calling god the ground of being, they refer to it as universal consciousness and so on. The word god becomes so nebulous, you cannot hold it. That notwithstanding, it has always to be repeated to the theist that the word god has not been defined coherently and that it is meaningless unless made in reference to a particular religion. Atheism is in no need of defense. The theist has his work set out for her. Tell us what god is, and whether god is and we shall know. Believing that a god exists on your say so will not work.

Craig must first demonstrate that the god he is arguing for exists and what it is before he can begin to say atheists are wrong in their assertions. To make blanket statements and assume we know what he is talking about when he says god will not hold. To quote him as a defense shows a lack of seriousness.

And again here, Craig is lying

Second, the statement that “God does not exist” is not a universally quantified statement. When the theist asserts that “God exists,” the word “God” is being used as a proper name, not as a common noun.

which god? Which theist? Would Craig admit that this is the case if the theist talking about god is a believer in some traditional village god or a Hindu or better still Allah? Is it Zeus? God is not a proper name. It is meaningless.

The author of the post then puts up their challenge to the atheist. They write

[..]Look where you expect the thing to be evident, and show that the evidence is not there. For example, show evidence that the universe is eternal.

and here there are two things to say. One is what is god? What evidence will we be looking for? How would we know we have identified god if we are not told what god is? The existence of the universe is not proof of god. It is possible to show the universe had a beginning but that the being responsible is not a god or are several gods better still we can argue, and rightly so, that the author of the universe is a supremely malevolent being.

The author goes on to say

The second way is to show that the concept of God is logically contradictory, e.g. – that the concept of a “timeless person” is self-contradictory

which first the author has to demonstrate how they have come to this knowledge. They must tell us how they know the nature of god. Besides that to say a being is both wholly just and merciful is self contradictory. In the case of the christian god, it must be evident to anyone with some grey matter that this god is self contradictory and as thus cannot exist. The christian says his god is all loving, just and forgiving but has at the same time created hell for damnation of a greater majority of the human race. What level of contradiction does the theist want to see that there is one?

And as is common of theists, they can’t help insults. The OP writes

Scholarly atheists try to do this, but this has not filtered down to the rank and file, which is why they still hold to these atheist slogans like “you can’t prove a universal negative”.

as if atheism is a religion with a head and followers. Let each man be his priest and his king. He does not need to have a shepherd to tell him this is wrong or right. He can walk on his own and share the knowledge that has been gained by members of the human family of hundreds of years.

For a person to argue thus

But the more we study the good, scientific arguments for God’s existence, the harder it is for naturalism to account for it. I am talking about the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, the habitability argument, the origin of life, the origin of phyla, scientific evidence for consciousness and free will (e.g. – mental effort) and so on. Not to mention other arguments like the moral argument and the minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus.

is to say with all respect that they don’t read. Tomes have been written to disprove each of the cases written above as being arguments for god and only an idiot would repeat them as proof for a god.

To claim that the data we have now supports a theistic worldview without telling us what this data is simply naive.

Setting a challenge such as

I can imagine all kinds of data that would argue against Christian theism. Finding the bones of Jesus. The universe being eternal. Experimental evidence for the multiverse. A probable naturalistic scenario for the origin of life.

only demonstrates that the person in question has ceased to be reasonable. How would we know these are the bones of Zombie Jesus? Will they have a tattoo? There are many creation stories, and as such showing the universe as having a creator is not proof of christian theism, far from it. It would take a case of so much special pleading to make that the case. Any explanation for the origin of life is not proof of god, the christian god. It is to commit a fallacy of equivocation to use creator and god interchangeably as if they meant the same thing. It would be possible to find a creator that would be malevolent but not supreme.

If our theist here thinks arguments are sufficient for proof of god, she is definitely misled. Very few people I know believe in god because of the veracity of arguments, on the contrary arguments are used by those believers who have realized they have no proper reason to continue believing and are interested in creating the impression their belief is rational and reasonable. If as they are wont to say that the existence of god is self evident, why they would need 2 arguments to explain it is beyond me. In fact why they would need an argument is beyond me.

What we want from the theist is proof of his assertions. He can shift the burden of proof all he wants but we will not relent. We will ask always to be told what god is and whether the being so described is. Making silent premises or assumptions will not fly.

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

39 thoughts on “Proving a negative

  1. ladysighs says:

    I never tire of reading your commentary/analysis of existence/nonexistence etc for god. I know it is not easy to debate/discuss with supposed learned scholars of the field. It takes much skill. Those people do persist and present arguments that at least give some fuel for thought. I could never and would never even try. Really haven’t had the opportunity.

    BUT…….Have you ever tried even a tiny bit to gently discuss with loved ones, relatives, good friends and neighbors? Sheesh! Even the most skilled would hit a brick wall.

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    • makagutu says:

      I have tried with friends and family and the results have mixed. There was one fellow ho seemed to see some sense but we haven’t met to do a follow up. With most friends, they believe they believe differently and have evidence for their beliefs. Those are beyond rescue. As you say it is worse than a brick wall, have you tried drilling a hole through concrete?

      Am always happy to see you. And it feels good to know you find time to read my posts.

      Like

  2. john zande says:

    Well said, brother.

    It does raise a chuckle when the apologist makes sweeping statements, such as the notion fine tuning, without then examining the actual nature of the claim. Show me another universe against which we can compare ours, and then we can discuss the concept of tuning.

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    • makagutu says:

      You know. Or when he talks of argument from morality has he not heard of euthyphro. Or when he mentions the minimal facts of the resurrection isn’t he aware of all the questions on those supposed facts?

      Like

  3. aguywithoutboxers says:

    The eternal conundrum. Proving a negative is actually a “no win” argument as both sides view the opposite side as the perpetual “negative” and their own as the exact, perfect refutation.

    A terrific post, my Nairobi brother. Thank you for making me think on a Sunday morning! Have a wonderful and relaxing remainder of your weekend! 🙂

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  4. I have a very basic problem with negative and positive proof. I do not believe in a god. I see no proof of one (or many), therefore I see no need to ask for proof that it does or doesn’t exist. It isn’t there. Simple, so now I can get on with my short life, yes?

    Our friend neuronotes always tells me off for my apathy, but I struggle to argue about something that is, tbh, patently fictitious at best, rubbish in the middle, and evil at worst.

    But I admire everyone who does continue to point out the lack of evidence for theism and argue against it.

    Mine would be very short. I see no proof. I’m not interested.

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    • makagutu says:

      Short as it seemingly is, it is very valid.

      And yes, you can get on with your long life and watch from the sidelines. As JZ has written in his recent post, it can pass as entertainment.

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  5. Ignostic Dave says:

    The business about finding the bones of Jesus always drives me up a wall, because it’s an argument built upon the presupposition of Jesus’ divinity. The person delivering the argument has never considered what it would mean if the bones were to be found: that (at best) Jesus was a relatively common wandering prophet with a small but loyal following who was killed by the Romans for promoting dissent, and whose mythos grew over numerous subsequent generations. Well, if that is so, then the finding of his bones would be a freak accident – a total stroke of luck, which would then undoubtedly be promoted as proof of his divinity. There is no expectation, if the bones are possibly findable, that we should ever stumble upon them, because if they are possibly findable, they’re not particularly special.

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    • makagutu says:

      Dave, I had not considered the divine component in the bone issue. How would we know these are divine bones? Will they be marked divine? Anyone asking for such evidence is sorry to say a dimwit.

      This is why I support those who write that if jesus went to heaven let him stay in the skies. He is of no use to us.

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  6. I’m writing a paper trying to prove Ewoks do not exist on the forest moon of Endor. I think someone just made it up that they do for a movie, but even so, I’m having a bitch of a time hunting down solid evidence for their non-existence. Perhaps searching for evidence that William Craig has a brain might be easier?

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  7. “I can imagine all kinds of data that would argue against Christian theism.”

    Fortunately the theist does not have to imagine, all they need do is keep their eye on the science category of the news.

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  8. The responsibility of proving a position assertion (i.e. God or gods exist) is higher than attempting to prove a negative assertion (i.e. gods do not exist) which is argumentative – IMO – in lieu of demonstrable facts.

    Therefore, the burden of proof falls on the theist, not the atheist. By engaging in this rationalized, non-empirical debate, atheists are unintentionally legitimizing the theist position. In other words, no one would be trying to disprove the existence of gods if the concept of gods wasn’t important. I do not believe the concept of gods is important other than as historical and sociological phenomena.

    However, if I was intent upon disproving the existence of gods, I would do so like I would attempt to disprove the existence of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I would research HOW, WHEN, and WHY such ridiculous notions came into being. By determining its origins, I could assess its subjective and objective relevance.

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    • Nice point about legitimising the theory. By which I mean I agree with it because it backs up my perspective. It also mirrors a post I wrote recently about the golden PR rule, (from the perspective of a government press officer) which is that all you do by responding to a bad news story is to give it credence and drag out the bad news.

      But I also think proving a god exists is one – philosophical – issue. Counteracting the damage done by religion is quite another.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ratamacue0 says:

        For the record, I needed discussions like these to find my way out. Showing where the burden of proof lies, demonstrating inconsistencies etc in the bible, the great (pre)suppositions of believers, the lack of evidence for Christian resurrection eye witness martyrs, etc.

        I appreciate your perspective, and I’m happy for you, that you didn’t have to wait decades for the light to come on, and search your way out, like me and many others. However, I still think these are useful conversations to have, as many people need to be met where they’re at, despite the risk you noted.

        Like

        • That’s fair enough, as others have pointed out to me previously. I didn’t ‘see the light’ or have to search my way out as I was never entrapped.

          The nearest I got to it was saying Gentle Jesus meek and mild etc before I went to sleep. But the most important part of that mantra was the end where I said god bless mummy and daddy and good dog Tarquin. The rest of it was meaningless! And as I grew older, I just decided it was all illogical, which was why I never got involved in it. Virgin births? Resurrection? Seas parting? Noah’s Ark? Jacob’s Ladder? etc So I never got to the level that others are at where they can thoughtfully prove that the bible is wrong. I’d dismissed it as a waste of my time and focused on getting on with my life.

          Which is why I’m no use in these debates! Luckily there are others who do have the patience, knowledge and stamina to point out the academic and intellectual failings of religion.

          My view is still valid however, and if a lot more people thought like I did, exercising free will no less, there might be a few less problems in the world. Indoctrination is quite the evil thing.

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    • makagutu says:

      I agree with you Robert. In my debates I insist that the theist starts first by telling us what god is before the debate can begin.

      My going theory is that ignorance is responsible for the creation of gods and as man becomes more reasonable and rational so dies his gods. There are other theories too all plausible on the origin of gods.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. shelldigger says:

    Nicely done Mak. I always find it interesting these arguments, a lot of fluff, zero substance. Often taking up pages to attempt to make a point, without ever really demonstrating that an actual point has been made.

    It’s nebulous at best, intentional misdirection at worst.

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  10. fojap says:

    “Very few people I know believe in god because of the veracity of arguments, on the contrary arguments are used by those believers who have realized they have no proper reason to continue believing and are interested in creating the impression their belief is rational and reasonable.”

    I found myself saying just this to someone the other day.

    Still, my biggest gripe about the religious is that they move the goal posts when you try to say that there are no gods, but the moment you concede that there may be some super abstract being out there, some first principal, some primordial ooze, they put the goal posts right back where they were at the beginning and want you button up your shirt and pay your ten percent for the privilege of being told what to do. That ineffable biggest something that is so impenetrable when the atheist says it doesn’t exist has commands very easy to divine once the atheist is quieted by distracting and misdirecting him with ontological ontologies.

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    • makagutu says:

      Believers and politicians are made of the same cloth. Their chiefest ability is shifting goal posts.
      Even if we conceded there was a creator, it would take magical leaps to make that creator the Abrahamic god.

      Like

  11. john zande says:

    Poor WK deleted my comments. Seems “facts” disturb her. I’ll post my last comment here for posterity:

    Hi WK

    Seems you’re having some difficulty in understanding what I’m writing. That’s OK. Let’s take it a little more slowly. I’m not saying this universe isn’t beautifully tuned in such a way that life (as we understand it) can grab a foothold. The numbers are massive, and impressive. Quote-mining cosmologists doesn’t however serve your argument; no one is disagreeing with you. I’m not disagreeing with you, and can give you much better quotes from atheist scientists talking about the remarkable tuning of the cosmos. I hope that’s clear. What I (and just about every cosmologist on the planet) am saying is the numbers are meaningless stand alone. Yes, alter the mass of the proton and this universe would be unrecognisable. No further statement can be made. Period.

    You could, however, make a statement if, and only if, you had another universe against which we can compare and contrast ours. Only then would it be possible to say this particular universe is remarkable, or not. Modelling other universes is pointless as we don’t know the conditions in which life (strange, exotic life) might be able to flourish. Other universes could, in fact, be far, far, far better suited to the production of life than this one.

    Now, as I explained to John, your thinking here boils down to the example I gave. It’s perfectly understandable, as when presented with such big numbers the urge certainly is to be awestruck with the unlikeliness of it all. Do, however, carefully consider the puddle of water sitting in a hole. The puddle thinks, “My, this hole is remarkably well-suited for me, isn’t it? It fits me so well, in fact, that it’s almost like this hole was made just for me! This hole must have been made for me!!”

    As I also pointed out to John, all concepts of agency-directed, life-enabling fine tuning fly out the window when you understand that this universe is, in fact, best designed for the production of black holes, not life-bearing planets. There are, in fact, trillions upon trillions upon trillions more black holes in this universe than life-capable worlds. That’s the simple fact of this universe. See “Cosmological Natural Selection and the Purpose of the Universe,” Andy Gardner & Joseph P. Conlons, University of Oxford, 2013.

    Now, if you want to posit a conscious agency here, then you must accept that the conscious agency you’re alluding to tuned this universe to make black holes, not life (as we understand it). Indeed, most material in the universe is devoted to creating black holes, not rocky planets where proteins can bond. The universe is essentially a vacuum flushed with hard radiations; prime real estate for black holes…. Ghastly for life. As such, if you want to posit a conscious agency, then the more accurate statement is: “This universe was designed by (my) God to produce black holes, not me.”

    It doesn’t sound so grand anymore, does it?

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