Friday, December 3, 2010

Another "Proof of God," Refuted (5/15/2009)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

A couple of people have sent me a fictional story about two Christians in a philosophy class confronting their atheist professor. (Maybe you've seen it; apparently it's been circulating by e-mail for years. A version can be found here.*) The story, which frankly is an embarrassment to anyone who has sat in a philosophy class or studied science, is an elaborate take on one argument for theism that I see over and over. Basically: "Yes, it may be true that we cannot see God, but what about magnetism, or electrons, or the wind? We can't see those, either. And what about love, or hope, or compassion, or any kind of thought -- not only can we not see them, but in addition science can't detect them, can't explain exactly what they are or how they work. If God doesn't exist, then the wind, hope, and love all must not exist, either."

This idea was touched on in the film "Contact," in the scene where Ellie Arroway demands proof of God, and Palmer Joss responds by asking her to prove that she loved her father.

If you're inclined to believe, it's fairly convincing. Surely, there are intangible things that actually do exist, so of course God is like that, too. But the argument introduces two classes of entities: merely invisible things, and states of mind, and it conflates the two classes into one class, the assumption being that God must be in that class as well.

Let's think of some merely invisible things: Air. Wind. Magnetism. Radiation. Low-voltage electricity. Hydrogen gas. "You can't see any of them, right?" Perhaps, but why the sudden emphasis on human vision? All of those things, and any other real-but-invisible thing you can think of, have effects that can be directly observed. Air, when it circulates as wind, makes leaves move. Magnetism affects a compass. Radiation can be picked up with a Geiger counter, electricity with a voltmeter. Hydrogen burns when ignited along with oxygen. Unlike acts of God, these things are all 100% predictable, testable, and repeatable; there is no case where hydrogen is not flammable or a magnetic field doesn't affect a compass. Basically, for all real-but-invisible things we know about, we have some kind of device or process that will reliably detect their presence. So, could we come up with a device that detects the presence of an invisible "God field"? Perhaps -- but if we do, atheists will no longer have much of a defensible position. To date, such a device hasn't been invented, so atheists remain atheists.

The other class in the argument comprises human states of mind: emotions, feelings, thoughts. I'm prepared to say that hope and compassion didn't exist on Earth in, say, the Devonian period 350 million years ago. Are theists prepared to say God didn't, either? I doubt it. But if they are, then we are in complete agreement. To me God seems to be a state of the human mind in the same way as love, anger, or hope are: a subjective phenomenon confined exclusively to the self. I have no issue with that kind of God whatsoever. (Just don't tell me He caused the Steelers to beat the Cardinals.)

The most likely counter-objection to what I'm saying would be something like, "God is more like a state of mind than a mere invisible thing, except that He exists independent of humans, existed before humans, and will exist after humans." Well, fine, but that kind of destroys the analogy between God and fleeting, human states of mind, doesn't it?

If God exists, then He exists in His own class separate from merely invisible things and states of mind. That's the God that the theist must argue for.

* The most egregious misstatement in the story is, "According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn't exist." There's a subtle but critical distinction between having a position (saying something) and not having a position (saying nothing). "Science" -- and by the way it's quite a stretch to identify science in such singular, authoritarian terms, as in "the Vatican" or "the White House" -- is unable to take any position whatsoever on the existence of God.


  1. I totally agree with you on that.

  2. No one needs to argue the existence of God with you. God will prove He's exists to you personally.

  3. nice post.

    and about the Professor's Brain it's very simple just crack the skull open and you'll be able to see, touch, smell and taste(if you wanted to!) the Professors brain.. although I think we won't be able to Hear his brain :)

    liked you youtube vidz <3

  4. I really hate those straw man arguments. The professor version I really hate is the one that purports to have Einstein as the student arguing for the existence of god! I think it is interesting that religious attempt to emulate a logical/scientific rhetoric to prove there is a god. And their own religion glorifies faith (belief in the absence of proof) as something praiseworthy.