Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?

That's the title of an essay by Greta Christina.

It's one of the most intelligent essays I've encountered online in a very long time.

If you have the time, I strongly encourage you to go read it before reading another word here.

I've been impressed by Greta before (as noted in an entry I posted almost a year ago now). It's because of thoughtful, well-spoken atheists like Greta that I feel much less compelled to write about theism and religion than was the case 10 years ago when it very much felt like you and me against the world (and I still had my doubts about you).

As thoughtful and well-spoken as atheists like Greta are, however, I sometimes sense that they're missing or overlooking something.

Or maybe I'm the one missing or overlooking something.

Either way, the end result is that Greta and I seem to have come up with very different answers to the question she's raised (or, to be more precise, borrowed from the broader online atheist community which I haven't been paying much attention to lately).

Her answer is yes (and she gives some of the details of what would convince her that gOd is real here).

My answer is a pretty firm no. I can't think of any evidence that would prove that a gOd exists for the simple reason that IF an omnipotent being like gOd exists, the nature of evidence as we commonly understand it would be so completely transformed as to become meaningless.

This is not an answer I've ever seen given elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, it is also not an answer that I've ever seen anyone ever refute. Feel free to be the first!

But first... allow me to elaborate a bit in the hope of avoiding any misunderstanding.

Suppose a magician were to suddenly appear before me now and claim to have omnipotent powers. Suppose that in an attempt to convince me of the truth of this claim, the magician successfully performed virtually every act I requested of him. Not only was he able to do such relatively mundane tasks as walk on water and turn water into wine, he was able to raise the dead, make the sun set in the east, be in two places at once, predict the future, read my mind, take me back in time, and even present me with a four-sided triangle AND an invisible pink unicorn. Would all that prove that he really had omnipotent powers or would it only prove that he had the power to make me *think* he had omnipotent powers? How might we ever be able to tell the difference? I don't know. But unless we can tell the difference, however, we will never be able to disprove atheism.

In fact, it seems that once we grant another being the power to control our minds, we lose the ability to prove or disprove anything at all. The very real possibility exists that whatever we feel, perceive, think, believe, or conclude is merely an illusion created by that being.

And the power to control our minds falls far short of omnipotence. It's a necessary part of omnipotence - but not sufficient proof of it. Once it's granted as existing, however, it's Game Over. We're simply no longer in any position to judge the existence or non-existence of attributes above and beyond that one.

Or to use an analogy.... Our eyes can detect only so much brightness before they burn out and we go blind. Our ears can only hear sounds so loud before our eardrums are blown and we can hear nothing at all. Asking a human being to look at a light and decide whether it's infinitely bright is absurd. If looking at a 50,000 watt bulb instantly burns out our retinas, we're simply no longer in any position to determine if such a thing as a 50,001 watt bulb exists, let alone a hypothetical light of infinite wattage.

The magician is a kind of 50,000 watt being who has burned out our minds.

Now let's put the magician aside. Let's simply assume that, yes, at least one being with omnipotence does indeed exist. Omnipotence seems to be a necessary attribute of gOd - but it's not the only one. According to common Christian theology, for example, gOd is also all-knowing and all-good and all-present. BUT once we grant a being omnipotence, it's impossible for us to prove anything more. Omnipotence, after all, necessarily includes the power to deceive others into believing *anything* at all. Ergo, any proof we might come up with is necessarily suspect. Once we've granted (or proved) the existence of omnipotence, it's Game Over and all bets are off. An impenetrable veil has come down between us and objective reality (whatever that reality may be).

Or to put it yet another way: It is only in a natural, materialistic universe that the concept of proof makes any sense. Once we've assumed (or proved) the existence of a different kind of universe, epistemological chaos reigns supreme and it becomes virtually impossible to prove *anything* at all.

Or to put it still another way... it seems to me that to falsify atheism, one must falsify reason and empiricism as we know them; but once one has falsified reason and empiricism as we know them, it simply doesn't make any sense to use either to support any conclusion. We are truly lost at sea without a rudder. If there is in fact a gOd beneath that sea, how would we ever know it? Best to remain silent and not think anything at all. Or maybe scream, if you like. The only thing that definitely seems inappropriate is to continue yammering on about proof and disproof as if the language we've developed to deal with this world applies equally well to a world gone mad.

It is hard for me to understand why anyone - theists included - would take the least bit of comfort in believing that such a world is synonymous with the one we actually live in....


  1. My answer is a pretty firm no. I can't think of any evidence that would prove that a gOd exists
    Doesn't that pretty much define Atheism as a religion for you--a matter of faith?
    I admit I only read until the part I quoted and didn't read the two AlterNet or one OD links you provided, tho I did open them in other tabs. The words I italicized caught my attention and temporarily preempted further reading because I thought we decided long ago not to argue with people who make claims that can't be disproven, i.e., aren't susceptible to rational analysis or evidentiary scrutiny.

  2. OK, I read the rest of this musing and most of the three links you pointed to. I am a little fuzzy brained from my experience with the oral surgeon but I think I get it. What I get is these are old familiar opening moves in games that lead to stalemates.
    Philosophy and philosophers have a long history of going too far, trying to expand princples where they don't belong.
    I think these questions about God are meaningless and don't deserve all this attention.
    The problem is the people who are brought up to believe the nonsense is Sacred Truth. What you say to them is more important than what you say to other atheists who are trying to construct new schools of thought in a misguided attempt to replace one meaningless philosophy of the universe with another.
    It's a mistaken notion or goal that we can find "solid" thoughts that provide a foundation for building meaning. We can build systems of thought on evidence, i.e., physics, but there is nothing on which to build metaphysics. It's the functional equivalent of alternative medicine--all placebo.
    The right metaphor for meaning isn't looking for a place to stand forever. It might be finding a way to keep swimming in an ocean that's effectively infinitely deep. That's how I think of it, but I'm not out to persuade everybody that's how they should think about it. It may only be 50,001 feet deep, but that doesn't matter if it's too deep for us.

  3. Sometimes I wonder if all of the explanations, arguments, debates, reason, and logic are even worth wasting on theists anymore. Like Deve said, "The problem is the people who are brought up to believe the nonsense is Sacred Truth." There is no arguing with them because their ultimate argument "you can't know the mind of g0d" is so illogical and lacks any sense of intelligent evaluation it can effectively end a debate. Sometimes I feel like we are only out here reiterating ourselves to ourselves.

    Is it really pointless, or is there still hope? I'm not going to hold my breath, that's for sure, but I am still here, fighting the good fight and rooting for you! If nothing else you make me think. :)

  4. I like to remind them that if I can't know gOd's mind then neither can they.
    Most people reflexively agree when I say, "Nobody knows what God wants."
    I settle for that.
    I like to think I am preparing the ground and planting seeds.