Why God is Not Proved. And Why That’s Right.

Physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace is best known, among post-modern atheists, for a quote from a conversation with Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon asked how he had composed an entire book on physical operations without a single reference to God, Laplace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

Except, of course, that that is not at all what happened. The hypothesis which Laplace did not need was Sir Isaac Newton’s supposition that God must periodically intervene to keep the universe running smoothly. Physical theory had advanced to the point that all known operations could be demonstrated mathematically. This mis-quote began circulating Laplace’s lifetime, and he was mortified by it.

But that is of no moment to the post-modern atheist. As devotees of post-modernism, terms like “fact”, “truth”, “honor”, and “respect” mean nothing to them–except as empty strings of letters around which may be constructed equally-hollow sophistries. “God-as-Hypothesis” is all the rage amongst this pseudo-intelligentsia, with Richard Dawkins even devoting an entire book to it. Worse, non-atheists have accepted this position, constantly trying to find ways to “prove God”, while the atheist stands back and demands “empirical proof”. There are several problems with this approach:

First, hypotheses are not proven. They are DISPROVEN. If the atheist wishes to claim that God is an hypothesis, then they reinforce the burden-of-proof on themselves (Reinforce, not “shift to”. They already bear burden-of-proof by making a claim contra status quo). The usual retort will be something about “the impossibility of proving negatives” or “disproving magic sky-men.” It is, of course, hardly impossible to prove a negative: if I state “there is no elephant in my pocket”, I may simply turn out my pocket and show it to be true. And “magical sky-man” is so laughably naive that one must suppose that atheists spend their time in argument with toddlers; we are speaking here of First Cause, not first-grade Sunday school.

Second, God is not a physical entity, and therefore standards of empirical evidence are not valid in this argument. Happily, empirical evidence is not the only standard of evidence which exists–otherwise, very few court cases would ever find resolution. While our limited human perspective will always color our perception of God, giving rise to the various cultural lenses today called “religions”, the fact is that all major religions involve humanity’s attempt to understand the same universal Truth: God.

The Hindus may call God Brahman, and reference reincarnation and the dissolution of subject-object. The Evangelical Protestant may call God the source of all good, opposed by Satan. But in all cases, we are discussing the rational, metaphysical foundation by which reality exists–and the non-atheist may therefore draw upon a body of direct eyewitness accounts spanning the whole world and all of human history.

But the most important problem with the God-as-hypothesis position is this: God is not an hypothesis, but an axiom. All systems of logic operate on axiome–statements which must be accepted as true in order for the system to be valid, but which have no basis for “proof” outside of the system.

The most familiar example would probably be the number “one.” In order for mathematics to operate, “one” must be accepted as true. It can only be proved valid by operations performed on other numbers (3-2=?, etc.), but all numbers are, in fact, the result of operations performed on “one.” There is no empirical evidence which proves the existence of “one”; it is entirely metaphysical. It has no weight or dimensions to measure. You may either accept that “one” exists–thus giving you numbers, thus giving you mathematics and everything derived from it–or you may reject the existence of “one.” In which case, you have no valid basis to perform any mathematical operation.

Similarly, God is an axiom. Remember, we are not attempting to validate any particular religion, nor certainly are we attempting to provide an historical basis for systems of mythology. Rather, God (as a universal concept) is the rational ordering principle of reality. One may accept the existence of God, in which case the universe is rational; this gives us a basis for logic and therefore science.

Or, one may reject the existence of God. Without a rational ordering principle, the universe would be, by definition, irrational. As a subset of the universe, we also would be by definition irrational. Finally, by definition, an irrational being cannot undertake a rational examination of an irrational system. So, by rejecting God, we have rejected reason and science.

It should be noted also, that ‘the laws of physics’ are not sufficient to provide a rational ordering principle, thereby negating God as the basis for reason. First, while we call them ‘laws’, they are in fact completely arbitrary to our powers of perception and cognition (witness General Relativity vs. quantum mechanics). Second, they are dependent upon the pre-existence of the universe: that is, the universe did not come into existence because of the laws of physics. Rather, the laws of physics describe how we observe the universe in its current state.

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8 responses to “Why God is Not Proved. And Why That’s Right.

  1. First of all, no, hypothesesare only disproven if they are falsifiable. No one goes around and disproves random stuff people make up (simply because it’s impossible to disprove non-falsifiable hypotheses). Making up a hypothesis is easy – searching evidence to support it and making it falsifiable, thus trying to elevate it to a theory, is hard.

    So, no, it’s not about magic sky-men, but the simply fact, that a hypothesis that is not falsifiable cannot be disproven – but that isn’t a point in favor of the hypothesis.

    If thousand people tell you a thousand different things, then you can either believe that they all mean your thing – or that they are probably all wrong. And honestly, most atheists have no problem at all with a purely theistic god, about which no more can be said (which would be the one if you think that all religions are about the same thing). Such a god could not be used as a reason for trying to force your personal belief onto others – and thus no problem for most atheists, who normally don’t care what you belief, as long as you don’t try to force it onto others or into law.

    An axiom may be nice in a purely theoretical setting (such as math) and as long as there are no internal inconsistencies (there are, for example, in Christianity) totally valid – but as soon as you try to fit a religion onto reality, your axiom stats to get tested. And if your hypothesis, based on this axiom, doesn’t work out, then you will eventually have to question your axiom. For example, I can chose “I don’t exist” as my axiom – but it will probably lead to internal inconsistencies – not to speak of problems when trying to overlay my hypothesis based on this axiom onto reality.

  2. Why should I give his statements the illusion of credibility by arguing with him? This is not a debate forum; it is my blog. Readers may decide for themselves what they think of “unfalsifiable hypotheses”.

    His education is not my business, but I wish him well at it.

    Thank you, also, for sharing your thoughts.

  3. First, I would like to disagree with your position that atheists have the burden to disprove a deity or deities, both based on the God-as-hypothesis idea and the God-as-axiom idea. For the hypothesis issue, usually it is the person making the hypothesis who also has the burden of creating a test that others can replicate to see the phenomenon. As to the axiom idea, one must accept the assumption as true before any discussion could begin. In that situation the burden is on the person holding the assumption to show why that assumption should be held.

    For example, as an atheist I hold certain assumptions about the world that reject the concept of supernatural events being possible. If I cannot convince someone to share these assumptions with me, then I cannot very well expect them to share the conclusions I reach using those assumptions.

    Second, I wanted to talk about this statement, “While our limited human perspective will always color our perception of God, giving rise to the various cultural lenses today called [‘]religions[‘], the fact is that all major religions involve humanity’s attempt to understand the same universal Truth: God.” That is a conclusion you reach that I would disagree with. Other reasonable hypotheses exist for why humans search for deities, such as finding comfort in an uncaring world or conforming to social norms of searching for deities.

    And finally, “So, by rejecting God, we have rejected reason and science.” This conclusion rests on the assumption that God is the only rational ordering principle of the universe, and that by rejecting that idea we all reject the idea of ordered thinking. Simply because one cannot explain rational thought does not mean that there must be a God around to grant us that ability. It only means that we do not know.

  4. Greetings! Thanks for taking the time to reply. 🙂

    “First, I would like to disagree with your position that atheists have the burden to disprove a deity or deities,”

    Atheism is not required to disprove any particular deity or deities, because atheism does not claim that any PARTICULAR deity or deities are non-existent. Atheism claims that the CONCEPT of divinity is invalid, and all religions are superstition. Therefore, disproving one particular interpretation is irrelevant. If I claimed today that the world was carved from the body of Tiamat by Marduk, and you claimed that it was not, I would be making an unusual claim and would be required to prove my hypothesis. However, if we lived in ancient Sumer, my claim would have the status quo and you would be required to prove your claim against it. Of course, Tiamat and Marduk were ‘gods’, and it is generally quite easy, using modern science, to disprove the existence of gods. But gods are not the only interpretation of divinity.

    “both based on the God-as-hypothesis idea and the God-as-axiom idea. For the hypothesis issue, usually it is the person making the hypothesis who also has the burden of creating a test that others can replicate to see the phenomenon. As to the axiom idea, one must accept the assumption as true before any discussion could begin. In that situation the burden is on the person holding the assumption to show why that assumption should be held.
    For example, as an atheist I hold certain assumptions about the world that reject the concept of supernatural events being possible. If I cannot convince someone to share these assumptions with me, then I cannot very well expect them to share the conclusions I reach using those assumptions.”

    Well, I suppose that ‘assumption’ can be used as a synonym for ‘axiom’, although it lends an unnecessary sense of arbitrariness to the dialogue. An ‘hypothesis’, however (as you point out), is a conjecture to be tested, and therefore is not simply ‘an assumption’. So, let us rather use the term ‘claim’. Also, it is not true that ‘one must accept the axiom as true before any discussion can begin’. We can rationally examine the consequences of accepting the axiom as true, and the consequences of rejecting the axiom. But we cannot reject an axiom, and still utilize systems which require the axiom to operate.

    ‘Theism’ is the positive claim that some sort of divinity exists. There have been many different interpretations as to the nature of divinity, at least one for every significant human culture. Some believe in ‘gods’, which are personal supernatural anthropomophizations of natural phenomena (Zeus, Thor, the 330 million Hindu gods, et al. The god of the Israelites, if the Hebrew Bible is read as literal stories, would be a god). Some believe in God, the metaphysical rational organizing principle of the universe (Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover/Aquinas’ Prime Mover; Plato’s ‘The Good’; the Hindu ‘Brahman’, et al.). Some systems (notably Hinduism) use both.

    ‘Atheism’ is also a positive claim—that no divinity exists. It has come into vogue recently to say that atheism is ‘just a lack of belief’ (in order to skirt this exact issue, burden-of-proof). However, this is untrue; ‘lack of belief’ is actually ‘agnosticism’, which is no more a form of atheism than it is a form of theism. Where theism is a claim ‘that’, atheism is a claim ‘that not’.

    Given that two positive claims exist, one must have burden-of-proof. As it happens, burden-of-proof falls to the claim contra status quo, and as the position of over 95% of humanity, for the entirety of human history, theism holds as quo as a status can get. Note that this does not PROVE theism; attempting to do that would constitute an ‘argument from the masses’ at best. But it definitely requires the atheist to prove his claim against the status quo (in the case of contention). I am happy to provide references on the use of status quo in debate, if you want them.

    “Second, I wanted to talk about this statement, “While our limited human perspective will always color our perception of God, giving rise to the various cultural lenses today called ‘religions’, the fact is that all major religions involve humanity’s attempt to understand the same universal Truth: God.” That is a conclusion you reach that I would disagree with. Other reasonable hypotheses exist for why humans search for deities, such as finding comfort in an uncaring world or conforming to social norms of searching for deities.”

    Here you are talking about two different things. Your position is correct as it applies to ‘gods’, and I certainly will not defend the position that there are any ‘gods’. But see above where I discuss the difference between ‘God’ (which may be referred to as YHVH, Allah, Brahman, or many other names, depending on the language/religion exploring the concept), and ‘gods’ (which may include any of the previous when used as a personal agent in a story, or any other personal supernatural anthropomorphization).

    “And finally, “So, by rejecting God, we have rejected reason and science.” This conclusion rests on the assumption that God is the only rational ordering principle of the universe,”

    A deduction, not an assumption. If the universe is rational, then it must follow a rational ordering principle. For such a rational principle to order the universe it must not be dependent upon the universe for its existence—therefore, it is metaphysical. The metaphysical rational ordering principle of the universe is God. To posit more than one such is to violate the Rule of Parsimony.

    “and that by rejecting that idea we all reject the idea of ordered thinking.”

    If there is no rational organizing principle of the universe, then the universe is, by definition, irrational. If the universe is irrational, then we, as subsets of the universe, are by definition irrational. An irrational being, by definition, cannot rationally examine an irrational system. QED. This is not just a matter of rational THINKING, but of rational REALITY. Without the rational organizing principle, there is no basis (including previous success) to expect that any observed phenomenon would be repeatable in the future.

    “Simply because one cannot explain rational thought does not mean that there must be a God around to grant us that ability. It only means that we do not know.”

    Again, you are discussing ‘a god’, not God. I know the terminology is a bit muddled; I blame the Greeks. 🙂

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