Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Proving a Negative as an Apologetics Manuever

I ran into a pair of the worst apologetics arguments imaginable last week. So bad that it took me days to get my head around them. I discuss the first of these here.

The passage that incensed me was

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

There is enough wrongness packed into these two sentences that they could stop a charging bull elephant. Let me paraphrase them to dig out the core thought: “Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist”. I don’t know if it’s my business to try to unearth the reason why they think this is a persuasive argument that God exists - but I can comment on whether the argument is persuasive.

The obvious first question is “Is this a coherent claim?” Isn’t the claim “Disbelief in The Invisible Pink Unicorn is wrong because no one can prove that The Invisible Pink Unicorn doesn't exist“ just as coherent? Aren’t the two questions then equally persuasive in making their cases for their subjects? Shouldn’t we be able to assert the same about Allah, Zeus, Odin, Mithra, Ashur, Enlil, Chemosh, Baal, Vishnu, Marduk, Yaluk and others, and expect our interlocutors to respond? Won’t all of these claims tend to make their cases equally well?

The answer, of course, is “no”. No, you can’t expect your interlocutors to respond to claims like this because you’ve left out something essential. First, assuming you’ve chosen “God” as the object that you claim can’t be proved to not exist, you must acknowledge the implied claim you’re making that “God exists”. You’re asserting that the object referred to as “God” is an actual thing for which existence is an attribute.

Imagine the following conversation:
A: Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist
B: Are you claiming that God exists?
A: Yes
B: Which God are we talking about? What attributes does it have that I can test?
A: [responds with explanation]
B: [requests clarification on what level of certainty is required for proof]
A: [provides clarification]
B: [proceeds with testing prior to presenting results]
Then imagine this alternative conversation:
C: Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist
D: Are you claiming that God exists?
C: No
D: Then what are you talking about?
C: [no response]
D: [ends conversation]
The implied claim that “God exists” gives claimant A something ostensibly real to discuss. Respondent B can then request a list of the claimants best evidence and arguments that this object exists, and begin an examination of the positive claim “God exists”. If the level of certainty reaches what the participants agreed to, then they may assent to the claim. Other outcomes may result as well. A resolution is possible in principle.

The absence of the positive claim “God exists” - on the other hand - raises the question of what claimant C could possibly mean. Without clarification of what the subject of C’s claim is, the words “no one can prove that God doesn't exist“ has no meaning because, using C’s own refusal to acknowledge the implication that “God exists“, no real subject exists to discuss. D is under no obligation to continue.

What I’ve omitted is that the idea of “proof” is not one that is relevant outside mathematics, even though the word is used in lay conversations everywhere. The real challenge - if both parties are amenable - is to establish a level of certainty (think of a Bayesian probability between zero and one) that the parties agree will serve as confirmation in lieu of “proof”.

Then let the fun begin!

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