Thursday, January 21, 2010

Open the Floodgates

Maybe you thought you’d be able to bridge the great divide between the natural and the supernatural worlds and get to God through faith?  The evidence for God isn’t compelling, and there are lots of things that suggest there isn’t one.  But if you just have faith that he’s there, then you can believe and be confident that he’s real.  Maybe you thought having faith gives you a special kind of knowledge even. 

In their paradigm cases, we use the term faith to describe a case where a person’s epistemic situation doesn’t fully warrant believing on the basis of evidence.  There are some counter indications or some lack of evidence that leave the conclusion unresolved.  When a person’s favorite sports team is down in the last few minutes but has a slim chance to come back, he has faith in them.  A wife has faith in her husband when he’s away on a business trip with an attractive coworker.  Worried family members, in the emergency room waiting room, have faith that their critically ill loved one will make it through the night.  And so on.  We only invoke faith when there are some reasons to doubt or the result we desire seems unlikely.  Where there is evidential justification, there is no room for faith. 

That’s why faith is so frequently the response that believers give when they are pressed hard on the grounds for believing in God. 

But here’s the problem.  Reason is the set of cognitive capacities that make it possible for us to seek out evidence, sift through it, and draw conclusions.  (Evidence here should be broadly understood to include empirical as well as conceptual or a priori considerations.)  Our reasoning capacities are the only tools we have for separating reality from fantasy, fact from fiction, justified belief from nonsense.  Once you abandon it, then you’ve opened the floodgates.  Once we let it go, there are no principled, coherent, or meaningful grounds on which to prefer one God over another.  As long as you were just thinking about the one God that you’re familiar with, the one that everyone around you seems to believe in, then making the leap of faith sans reason, doesn’t seem so problematic. 

But here’s a question:  How many supernatural hypotheses are out there for your consideration?  How many gods are vying for your faith?  Is the only game in town the God that the people in your church have been telling you about?  Obviously not.  There is a very long list of other beings lurking over there, waiting to get in.

Before, when you still had reason at your disposal, at least you had some means of singling the right one out of this mess.  But if we write off the role of reason in making decisions on the basis of evidence, we have a dilemma.  On what basis will you decide to opt for one of these gods and not the others?  Since you’re allowing that it’s ok to abandon reason and just believe what you like without regard for the evidence, then why no Baal, Acchupta, Ryangombe, Pu’gu, Pen Annwen, Orcus, Orunmila, Nintinugga, Ningirama, Montu, Mahamanasika, Kamrusepa, Haumiatiketike, or Hatdastsisi.  Faith in one is just as good as faith in another, right?    

You’ve opened the floodgates to any and all gods, and left yourself without the means to choose or hold any of them back.  Reason and the evidence were the only things you had to hold back countless mistakes. 

That is, there’s not a sufficient case to be made in favor of believing any of one of these and rejecting the others on the basis of evidence, so what’s to keep one of the devout followers of Hatdastsisi from pulling the same move.  “The only way to true belief in Hatdastsisi is through faith,” after all, “and those of you who don’t will suffer with eternal torment.”    

You’ve given up the one  tool you had for making a choice here on the basis of any rational standard.  If the evidence (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter, then all of these supernatural beings are on the same footing.   Notice the irony in someone who is willing to abandon good sense and believe against contrary evidence, but who says about all these other gods: “but those other gods just don’t make sense.”  Since when was making sense the issue for someone who is opting for faith over what makes sense? 

Of course, you’ve got a special place in your heart for the divine being that your parents taught you about, and the one that the other members of your culture or religious sect all believe in.  But those aren’t reasons to think that he really exists.  That you were born into a Christian household and culture is a historical contingency. 

The thing is,  you might not think there’s as much to recommend  Haumiatiketike as there is to recommend Jesus, or whoever your favored magical being is.  But if you try to defend your opting for the same God that you were taught to believe in as a child, and you’re going to play the faith card, then you’ve set yourself up with an irreconcilable problem.

On the one hand, when the evidence and reasoning wouldn’t produce the conclusion that you wanted, you thumbed your nose at them and decided you’d belief what you wanted anyway.  But on the other hand, now you’re trying to argue or reason that there are some grounds for thinking that God is real and the others are not.  You just can’t have it both ways without being flagrantly irrational.  Gerrymandering some defense of believing in your God by faith while rejecting all of the others is a flagrant example of special pleading or the ad hoc fallacy. 

Maybe you think that having faith in Jesus is more fulfilling or somehow more enriching for human life than all of those others.  But notice again that you invoking a reasoned principle that is something like “People should adopt those religious doctrines that are most fulfilling in X, Y, and Z fashion.  Having faith in Jesus is most fulfilling in X, Y, and Z fashion.  Therefore, people should have faith in Jesus.”  There are two things that are seriously messed up here.  First, this believer is making use of some logical inferences only as long as it suits him, but rejecting them when they give him any conclusion that is contrary to the Jesus conclusion he wants.  And second, notice that we’ve left the discussion about truth entirely.  It might be that there are some pragmatic benefits to certain kinds of cognitive practices, but those never entitle a person to claim that some claim is true.  It gives me a thrill to believe that a billion dollars has mistakenly been deposited to my bank account too, but I’m not entitled on the basis of those positive personal feelings to conclude that it is really in there.  Personal fulfillment never gives us epistemic justification. 

What the faith move does, in effect, is throw out the rules.  It shows that you’re just going to believe it regardless of what the real indicators point to.  And by throwing out the rules, you mire yourself in nonsense, and you disqualify yourself from any serious consideration.  You also undermine your own efforts to try to make sense of anyone else’s view.  Suppose the atheist pulls the same move. 

Atheist:  I know that there are no gods whatsoever.

Believer:  But how can you ever know something like that for sure?

Atheist:  I have faith that there are no gods. 

Believer:  That doesn’t make sense.  How can you have faith in something that isn’t real?  You can only have faith that there is a God. 

Atheist:  I don’t have to be concerned with what makes sense—I’m off in faithland now.  And in faithland, reason, evidence, and good sense are disregarded so that I can help myself to any conclusion we want without worries about being coherent or making sense.  Those are petty evidential and rational concerns that are all left behind by faith.  My faith in the vast godlessness of the universe is beyond human comprehension--it transcends our puny understanding.

Actually I find it all surprisingly comforting.  As soon as I let faith into my heart, all my worries and cognitive needs about figuring out the truth and being reasonable dissolved.  Faith brings great peace of mind.  It deadens the acuteness of the persistent need I felt before to gather as much reliable information I could and draw the most reasonable conclusion I could on the basis of it.  Now I don’t have to worry about any of that.  Now I’ve realized that I can just believe anything I like without any responsibility for justifying it.  If I want it, I can just help myself to it.  As long as I'm at it, I'm going to have faith that global warming isn't real, there are no religious conflicts in the middle east, and that there's a million dollars in my bank account.  

Believer:  But that's all insane.  What about your responsibilities as a citizen and a moral agent in a society with the rest of us?  How can you think that the evidence is irrelevant to what you believe, or that you can just dismiss the importance of rationality?  

Atheist:  You know, I don't like your tone.  You’re angry and strident.  You're being intolerant and critical of my faith.  I'm exercising my religious freedom by opting out of being rational, and you have to respect that or you're not respecting my personal religious choices.

Many believers retreat to the “F” word as their last ditch effort to defend believing in God.  Faith has a number of features, but principle among them is that it describes cases where we believe that something is true even though the evidence on the whole does not support it.  If there were sufficient evidence, after all, there would be no need for faith.  Many people also view this sort of fudging as harmless.  But what we have seen is that it creates a crisis.  If the evidence doesn’t matter in our justifications for what we believe, then floodgates are open for any sort of insanity to rush in.  Taking the evidence seriously was the only way we had to sift the claims that are plausible from the ones that are delusional, dangerous, or absurd. 


Anonymous said...

very well put. i'm bookmarking this one.

Ketan said...

Congratulations! This was one of the best illustrations of double standards employed by theists in rejecting and employing faith and reason, as and when doing so suits the conclusions they want to support.

clamflats said...

Matt -
Is it possible to argue for the existence of a Creator God who lacks the omni characteristics without resorting to a faith assertion? (Deism, right?)

The omni characteristics seem to me to be human characteristics. They are just what I'd expect to have in a humanly created deity. The Abrahamic religions often refer to God as "Lord" or "Father". The perfect lord or father would be all powerful, good, wise, immortal, caring about me as an individual and capable of orchestrating a perfect society.

I remember reading about a theory (sorry, can't make citations, it was 35 years ago in college) that stated that the type of political system an ancient culture developed could be predicted by the geography of the region. I don't recall all the specifics but it stated that Middle East geography, particularly the Nile and Mesopotamian valleys are deserts, lack hunting opportunities, and rely on seasonal floods to support agriculture. Vast public works and manipulation of the water resource are required to sustain the society. This lead to concentration of power by individuals who could best organize the rest of the population into group building efforts, large scale agricultural, and trading. Compare that to European geography with its many water sources, forests, and abundant game. Individuals in small groups can sustain themselves without agriculture or trade. Admittedly, I am not presenting a complete picture of the theory but if it works for political sociology it might also explain religious sociology as well - single, all-powerful God vs. idiosyncratic pantheism.

So if I strip away the omnis because of their human generation, I am left with Creator being the only divine attribute. This also, happily, eliminates quite a few of the Arguments for God! Creation could still be a human invention but it does allow for a scientific inquiry and does not rely as heavily on faith assertions.

It seems to me that a Creator God could exist and I could be in awe and appreciative of Its brilliance and could feel a connectedness to It without relying on faith.


Matt McCormick said...

thanks for the comments. Clamflats, I think the standard view here, and it's my view, is that any lesser being than an omni-god isn't worthy of the name, and certainly isn't worthy of our adopting a slavish, fully religious attitude towards it.
Deism isn't a belief in a lesser God, it's the view that God has all of the omni characteristics, except perhaps "personal," and that he sets the world in motion and then steps back and lets it unfold according to rational principles without interfering or contacting it any further. Deus in absentia, as it were.

Certainly you can see what geographic, and cultural influences might lead to positing many kinds of gods. But those don't really bear on the question of whether it is true that one exists, or whether it is reasonable for us to believe in it now.
It's certainly possible that some such being exists. It's possible that Santa is real. But the question is always, what evidence do we have that suggests that it does?



G*3 said...

I love the conversation between the believer and the atheist. It beautifully demonstrates how believers are willing to allow the faith answer ONLY for their particular pet religion, but not for anything else.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Reminds me of this:
Reformed Epistemology in Non-Christian Religions

Matt McCormick said...

Yeah, I love all that "Self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit" nonsense that they tout. I find myself amazed, shocked, and thrilled that they will say stuff like that with a straight face and expect people to take them seriously.
For all of its complexity and sophistication, I take the whole reformed epistemology movement itself to be plain evidence that they have erected a scaffold around their particular God belief and they simply are not going to modify it, consider the evidence, or allow any rational considerations to have any impact on it at all. That's their line in the sand, and they will subordinate everything else to it, even their sanity.


Teleprompter said...

This article is great.

I think I even have a brand spanking new definition for faith.

Faith: Making use of logical inferences only just long as it suits you, but rejecting them when they give you any conclusion that is contrary to the conclusion you want.

John D said...


The two posts you have done this week are excellent.

I agree with you on reformed epistemology. It is a house built on sand. I tend to approach this from a Bayesian perspective, where different people start off with different priors (probabilities assigned to their beliefs), confront the evidence, and update their beliefs based on what the evidence will say.

Reformed epistemologists and Holy-Spiriters seem to start off with an unassailably strong commitment to a belief that can never be undermined, regardless of the strength of countervailing evidence. You see this with their constant appeals to possibility-arguments ("well, as long as its possible for god to have a reason, my prior commitment is still rational").

This is anathema to me: evidence must affect prior commitment. Bayesians talk about this in terms of something called "swamping the priors". That is: with a sufficiently large data, two people, irrespective of their priors, should end up with the same beliefs. This seems to be ruled out with RE.

clamflats said...

Matt - thanks for the response.

I'll accept your expertise that 'Deism' is not the correct term for the Non-omni Creator God I am proposing (not advocating!). But I take exception to your statement that NOCG is "not worthy of the name". An entity that could claim responsibility for the universe would still be pretty awesome even if Its creation sometimes causes great suffering to its sentient inhabitants. Atheism is not just a-Abrahamic God. Your post suggests Haumiatiketike as a faith alternate to Jesus, and Haumiatiketike is non-omni.

My intended point was that a NOCG could be believed without a faith assertion. Sure, it still requires evidence but at least it is falsifiable. The faith floodgate stays closed.

I'm coming off the winter holidays where my Christian fundamentalist in-laws like to gang up on the atheist. All in good fun, they claim. My position with them is that I see no necessity for belief in God and that Christianity is an obvious fabrication. Their final "arguments" are always - You're in rebellion against God (you know He exists) and I'm going to spend eternity in Hell. Convincing stuff, right?

Thanks for your blog. I've been reading a number of your articles and it has tickled my interest and sent me off researching. You're a good teacher.


Matt McCormick said...

John D, the Bayesian approach is the right way to think about these discussions. I think a lot of smart and not so smart Christians get together and in their echo chamber they get themselves really convinced that they are talking sense, partly because they don't have anyone to push back. So they do revise their priors over time, even when they don't want to. But when they are confronted with the hard problems with their positions, and their outrageousness, like I am trying to do here, it has an effect. You just have to keep plugging away and people make progress toward enlightenment.

Clamflats, sorry to hear about the strife with the family. That's repeated countless times and it has broken a lot of hearts.

Since Anselm and before, and especially with Aquinas, God in the monotheistic tradition has been conceived as the greatest possible being, or "that than which which nothing greater can be conceived," or the limit of power, goodness and knowledge. He's the idealized ultimate form at the logical limit of what these properties are. Some being that is less than that might be worthy of awe and would be impressive, but it wouldn't be God. Such a being just couldn't fit the job description, as it were. One of those might exist, sure, but we don't have evidence in favor of that. And to keep things clear with 2,000 years of philosophical theology, we should not refer to a thing like that as God. It would be like referring to Joe Biden as the President because he works in the same building.

Thanks again for all the comments. Keep them coming and gimme your ideas for the sorts of theistic positions you're encountering out there.


Anthony said...

A former churchmate of mine dropped this little bomb on me; it's not a new idea, of course, but I'm shocked to actually hear it vocalized.

He simply asserts that there are other spiritual forces out there, but they are just manifestations of demonic forces acting on the real world. It's such a get-out-of-jail-free card. He can now say that he acknowledges the existence of all these entities, but he can reject them precisely because of his faith.

In other words, he can allow all of them to existence and still reject them, ie. there is an Allah, but he's just a manifestation of Satan, there is an Odin, but he's just a manifestation of Satan, so on and so forth.

I have emotional rejections to this, but as far logical rejections to this, I have a hard time refining them.


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Anthony. That's pretty wild. A couple of thoughts. The more of these exotic supernatural entities that one allows to be real, the more pressure there is to actually produce something resembling proof of them. I mean, if there are spiritual forces demons, demigods, deities, and gnomes, or whatever, running around all over the fucking place like this, then why the hell can't we get a single picture, video, autograph, tissue sample, or anything? It's not like cameras are in short supply on cell phones or anything.

My other idea, is that it is pretty unusual for mainstream Christians to actually countenance the existence of all of these things. They usually deny that they are real. One problem is that they are mutually exclusive. Given what everyone says about what they are, God and Allah, for instance can't live in the same universe. Same for Vishnu and Jehovah. There can only be one almighty creator of the universe, unless you want to just throw out Christianity in any recognizable form.

But actually, I think your friend is just off the deep end. He's so deep in the grips of a consuming ideology that he'll embrace the most outrageous silliness rather than give it up. Once the Christianity worm has gotten that far into their brains, there's not much that can be done for them.


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Anthony. That's pretty wild. A couple of thoughts. The more of these exotic supernatural entities that one allows to be real, the more pressure there is to actually produce something resembling proof of them. I mean, if there are spiritual forces demons, demigods, deities, and gnomes, or whatever, running around all over the fucking place like this, then why the hell can't we get a single picture, video, autograph, tissue sample, or anything? It's not like cameras are in short supply on cell phones or anything.

My other idea, is that it is pretty unusual for mainstream Christians to actually countenance the existence of all of these things. They usually deny that they are real. One problem is that they are mutually exclusive. Given what everyone says about what they are, God and Allah, for instance can't live in the same universe. Same for Vishnu and Jehovah. There can only be one almighty creator of the universe, unless you want to just throw out Christianity in any recognizable form.

But actually, I think your friend is just off the deep end. He's so deep in the grips of a consuming ideology that he'll embrace the most outrageous silliness rather than give it up. Once the Christianity worm has gotten that far into their brains, there's not much that can be done for them.


Anthony said...

Hey Matt, thanks for the response. I think your reaction was similar to mine...complete incredulity!

Anyways, to clarify, he doesn't think that Allah, in the sense of his power and ability is real, but that whatever forces he may possess and disseminate in the real world are simply the forces that Satan has at his disposal, and they are being used as a means to trick Muslims into believing they have found the real god.

When you really spell it out, you realize how ridiculous it is, not to mention that he believes his all loving God allows this to happen.

Yeah, so he doesn't believe that there are two all powerful Creator Gods jockeying for cosmic position. He believes that Satan is parading as a Creator God, drawing people away from the real God. And in his view, Satan is very, very, very successful. Although Satan will be overthrown in the end, he will have effectively led nearly 90% of the world's population to Hell (he doesn't believe Catholics are saved, so it really starts to whiddle the amount of actual Christians in the world down significantly; so much for Christian solidarity!)

I will offer a glimmer of hope. When I was talking to him, he actually conceded that he might be wrong about the doctrines of Calvinism and an eternal Hell (as opposed to annihilationism). In his own words, "Those doctrines are not a hill that I'd die on." He saw just how untenable those doctrines were in light of an omnibenevolent God, and he knew that it would be impossible to argue for their existence with me. I kind of pride myself on disabusing people of their belief in eternal damnation. :)

Baby steps.

M. Tully said...


When you wrote, "Is it possible to argue for the existence of a Creator God who lacks the omni characteristics "

I'm curious, what would make you posit such an entity in the first place?

I mean, if we are going to have a discussion about "does x exist," shouldn't we have a reason for suggesting "x" in the first place?

Otherwise, couldn't I suggest that a non-detectable, non-interfering, non-fantastic being exists on my left shoulder and require everyone else to prove with metaphysical certainty that it doesn't? Put your question on the same standing.

If your answer is that, "there are phenomena in the universe we can't explain, ergo x. Well, the guy on my shoulder is just as good of an explanation as "The Creator."

I'm interested. Is there something deeper?

The argument from ignorance may make us feel better, but in the end it is no better of an expanition than my invisible friend.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks M.Tully. Good to see you back. You bring up a really good point here. In lots of cases, when you poke some holes in the omni-God hypothesis, the hopeful/faithful are tempted to fall back some slightly lesser being. If there are problems with omnipotence, then why don't we just give that up and maintain that God is just very, very powerful.

What this reveals, as you have brought out, is that the default position for these folks is to believe, at all costs, even if that means changing the characterization to avoid paradoxes. "Given that we are going to believe in God, how do we need to characterize him so as to avoid some of the thornier problems that the atheists are brining up?" But of course the problem is that believing in any God hypothesis at all, including the modified one, demands justification. You have to have some reasons for it. The point isn't just to find a conception of God that could possibly exist in the world as we find it; the point is to believe those claims that have sufficient justification to render them reasonable. We start at zero, not one. Thanks for helping me put my finger on something that's been evading me here.


オテモヤン said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The question of God, aliens, invisible imps are not testable and are thus outside the scope of the scientific method. We need to consider the veracity of such things philosophically and not scientifically.

There are plenty of beliefs people have that aren’t scientific. Like for example the philosophy of science isn’t scientific and like many other systematic processes are based on assumptions. And such assumptions are not always evidence based. Thus to argue that there is no valid hypothesis for supernatural things (which aren’t testable to begin with) really doesn’t hold very well.


Matt McCormick said...

You're not reading very closely, anonymous. The argument here isn't confined to empirical hypotheses. Our provisional conclusion that there are no supernatural beings living above the line is the result of the failures of all of our efforts--a priori, conceptual, empirical, inductive, deductive, etc.--to find a single instance where we have sufficient justification to think that a non-natural being is real. You're conflating evidence with empirical evidence, I'm not.


M. Tully said...


"The question of God, aliens,
invisible imps are not testable and are thus outside the scope of the scientific method."

I have to call, very much BS!

Those are very scientifically testable!

If you claim x as an explanation for y. Science demands that you DEMONSTRATE x!

Hey, if you want to claim, "There are fairies." That is a scientific claim. Absolutely the same as, "There are quarks." Give me a fairy (or god) hypothesis that can explain events in the past and make accurate and testable predictions about the future as well as the quark hypothesis and I'm all ears.

You see that thing about explanation and prediction, is science. Now, you can say that we should give that methodology up, but you would also be saying that we should give up curing diseases and using electricity (they both came from that whole explanation and prediction thing).

Can you produce a god (or fairy) hypothesis that even gets remotely close?

Give me a call when you can.

M. Tully said...


"are not testable "

My point being, Yes they are testable!

Anonymous said...


You have no idea what you are saying. In the philosophy of science the things mentioned are not testable. If you think otherwise ask the phil of science professor at your university and he will fill you in.

Or for a simple understanding read thw wiki article

Falsifiability or refutability is the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment. That something is "falsifiable" does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then this can be shown by observation or experiment. The term "testability" is related but more specific; it means that an assertion can be falsified through experimentation alone.

For example, "all men are mortal" is unfalsifiable, since no finite amount of observation could ever demonstrate its falsehood: that one or more men can live forever. "All men are immortal," by contrast, is falsifiable, by the presentation of just one dead man. Not all statements that are falsifiable in principle are falsifiable in practice. For example, "it will be raining here in one million years" is theoretically falsifiable, but not practically so.

Anonymous said...


You are correct in that your position of the supernatural etc is due to a lack of evidence. But of course you cannot logically move from a lack of evidence to a disbelief. You can however disbelieve the supernatural by an argument which you do not appear to be giving me but rather a case for weighing available evidence or lack there of. In such a case you would be making a logical error. If you said argument X has convinced me that there is no God then that would be sufficient. But again, I speak of evidence in a general sense because that is what you appear to be offering me - all cases of evidence (lack thereof) point to your conclusion that God does not exist. In other words, you are allowing the current set of lack of evidence prove an opposite assertion. You cannot possibly think that a limited amount of evidence for God, which may or may not be sufficient for verification, be all the possible evidence that exist. Only if you had the complete set of evidence on God or the supernatural you could prove such a negative.

Again, your denial of all empirical cases for god existence (throw in arguments etc) does not logical get you to a conclusion that he does not exist. But a positive argument for God’s non existence is a logical move because it relies on positive evidence and not negative evidence.


Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for your input, CS. You've got a few of these ideas right, but there are several mistakes here. First, we have countless situations where we lack positive evidence in favor, as you put it, and we draw the conclusion that X is not real. You lack evidence that you have ebola right now, correct? And from that you infer that you do not have ebola. Same for Santa, Tooth Fairy, Bigfoot, etc. Second, the "logical" move you're talking about doesn't really have anything to do with logic, either inductive or deductive. What you mean is that you think the inference is unjustified. I've addressed this issue and the question of what counts as evidence or proof at great length and in a lot of the prior posts. Scan back for those.


Anonymous said...


Ok I get the gist of what your saying. But It sounds like you me that you are appealing to common sense as opposed to a satisfied course for a JTB. In other words, you are telling me that because I don’t believe I have ebola right now (no evidence for such) that I should be not bothered that such a belief is superficial? I mean it sounds like you are describing the shortcomings of the daily beliefs people accept to not live in fear. I agree with you that people, most if not all do tend to conjure up beliefs based on lack of evidence but again this is the status quo or common practice and should not be confused with what people ought to be doing.

I am thinking even if we say that a person can have a inductive belief that they do not ebola for lack of evidence that we still do not solve the problem of logically moving to disbelief that is plagued in deductive reasoning. Doesn’t inductive reasoning also need to be based on some type of positive evidence? I mean we cant be justified to think we don’t have ebola because we just rearranged the strength of our conclusion? Or can we?

I guess I need to learn more about inductive reasoning before I can fully comment on your position. Unfortunately all that was offered in college was deductive logic so this may be difficult for me.


Matt McCormick said...

These are really interesting issues. Thanks for bringing them and engaging about them. There is not a short answer here. But I can say this. Positive evidence: there is a significant body of philosophical literature now in deductive atheology, or arguments that allege to show the impossibility of God. It seems to me that if a person has thought long and hard about one or some of those, considered objections, and arrived at some reflective equilibrium about the general soundness of it, then they would be justified in concluding that no such thing as God exists. There are lots of details, of course. See my encyclopedia entry on kinds of atheism and arguments above. Second, if a person has looked at the major groups of arguments that have been offered for centuries in favor of God's existence, and thought long and hard about them, and arrived at the conclusion that none of them is compelling--they all suffer serious problems, objections, or short comings--then they'd be justified in concluding this: We've been working on this topic with some of the greatest minds in history and to date, no one has come up with a convincing argument in favor of God's existence. The failure of so many attempts, by itself, makes it reasonable to conclude that while some new fangled argument might still be generated, for now we can decide that no such thing as God exists. Add the Divine Hiddenness arguments for atheism from people like Drange and Schellenberg on top of all of this and you've got a really convincing, broad case against the existence of God.

One problem in this discussion is that the believer or the non-atheist is tempted to try to saddle the atheist with some extra burden of proof that no one accepts or meets in other comparable situations. We all are justified in believing lots of negative existential claims in lots of circumstances, but somehow the atheist is always accused of exceeding the limits of what the "lack of evidence" entitled him or her to conclude. More double standards.


Anonymous said...


I looked into Bayesian reasoning and it seems interesting but entails conclusions that are probabilistic. So at best I could think that its unlikely I have ebola (be justified) but I haven’t really taken much of a position, at least one that would afford the strength of deductive methods. I cannot see though how a person can be an atheist and use Bayesian reasoning to deny God’s existence because at best they can only say he unlikely exist - wouldn’t that entail a more agnostic position due to the lack of strength in their reasoning method?

I think it is perfectly acceptable that a person can be an theist and tell me that such and such argument against God is true. I really couldn’t say much and maybe I would try to find out why but I would respect their belief, I believe many theist go wrong by trying to force their views, which just isn’t very humble nor tolerable.

Thank you for your comments


Matt McCormick said...


You're not thinking through the implications of this comment:

I cannot see though how a person can be an atheist and use Bayesian reasoning to deny God’s existence because at best they can only say he unlikely exist - wouldn’t that entail a more agnostic position due to the lack of strength in their reasoning method?

If you hold the justification and knowledge standard to a deductive certainty criteria, then there is virtually nothing in your life that you are justified in believing. You'll have to be agnostic about your name, the day of the week, where you live, how old you are, what you had for breakfast, and all of the other claims in your life that you count on with the most confident. If you jack up the standard for agnosticism to this level, then the atheist isn't justified, but you've fabricated that criticism of atheism at the cost of everything else that is obviously true, justified, and known in our lives. Your adopting some radical global skepticism isn't the atheist's problem to solve; that's just an indicator that your epistemology is screwed up down to its foundations. I'll go ahead and have lots more knowledge, thank you.

paulv said...

I can't think of many theists I know that would dispute someone's belief that there is no god. Are you at long last reconciled that atheism is also a category of belief system? Your dialogue between atheist and beleiver does not seem believable.

Secondly the floodgates analogy does not really hold. We are not faced with the choice of abandoning reason for ever. Even in simple matters, when we cannot prove something, we can assume a "likely" answer, and then if that assuption leads to contradictions go back and change the assumption.
One small leap of faith where reason provides no solution, does not mean we reject reason forever.

With regards to rational thinking, when the debate was raging, whether a photon was a particle or a wave, many believed that it could not logically be a particle because diffraction experiments showed wave properties. To cut to the chase, we now believe that quantum mechanical entites do not conform to our old logical distinctions, they transcend them in some way. (Probabilities interfere etc.)

So if certain type of gods are logically inconsitant, they must either not exist or, and here you fail to mention this alternative, they exist but transcend our logical constructs.

When dealing with questions that have no rational solution, like what kind of pizza shall I have tonight, it can open a "floodgate" if you will of possible choices and I may have no rational means of choosing between them. This does not pose a real problem to me when I'm hungry. I pick one, and I can live with the fact that I believe their Hawaiian is the best. Faith is called faith for a reason, and few theists try to defend their choice as entirely rational. I glad to see you asserting the same for atheists.

Anonymous said...


I see what you are saying but I also see that it is not ideal. It seems that you are appealing to the convience of baysean based beliefs and not their inherent limitation. You are right that my speculation entails agnosticism about most things in life but this seems appropriate. We ought to be always ready to change our views in life and many of us do. To me the baysean reasoning is what makes the scientific method self correcting -the fact that it doesnt draw deductive conclusions. The process of learning ought to be in a marriage with doubt. So the only way an atheist can be justifed is to use RE for their position.

I dont see problem with saying that most beliefs in my life are tentative with the exception of a few core beliefs, which are a priori.

I guess the real question is can't a person be agnostic about their position and still be justified? Justification is not truth and I have many beliefs that I believe are justfied but perhaps not true.


Anonymous said...

For clarification

"So the only way an atheist can be justifed is to use RE for their position"

What I am trying to say here is that athiesm requires a stronger method than induction to be a grounded position. Theist are certain in their conclusion about God and this is why they cannot not use inductive methods - they use deductive arguments.

I hope this makes sense to anyone...

Matt McCormick said...

I'm sorry CS, I don't mean to be a dick about it. But none of what you've said here makes any sense at all. It seems to me that you're contradicting yourself in numerous places. And your goal seems to be to argue that atheism is in some respect unjustified, or that the atheist is not entitled to claim that they know that there is no God. I don't get any of the criticisms. And you know, I hope, that there is a whole literature full of deductive disproofs of God's existence, right? And the widespread consensus among philosophers of religion is that the so-called deductive proofs for God's existence don't work.


Anonymous said...


No right minded logician or philosopher would ever accept the alleged proofs you speak of. didn’t you ever wonder why these alleged deductive proofs against God are so easily construed? You can easily crank new ones out with any given set of contrasting attributes. But these miserably deductive proofs you speak of is framed so absolute attributes when weighed against each other will contradict when accompanied by no scope. However, of we add color to our deductive proofs they fail. God was merciful one day as angel X and not a neither as angel y (both representing his will), God is outside of time and so form our perspective can be both mercurial and Just. Or God does not have human attributes of Just and merciful because such things are human qualities. I can thinking of countless reasons how God can either have both attributes (maybe his will operates by homeomorphism?) or no attributes. The mere fact that I can crank out explanations for each and every attribute game suggest there is something seriously wrong with the logic of your deductive proofs. Remember, we only need a single instance where God can have contrasting attributes and they all fail….

But back to the main point of me posting here. Matt, You really need to reexamine the whole proving the negative thing in regards to God.

Here is the champion of many atheist that even he admits to there being no philosophical proof for God. oddly, I am familiar with this man’s work but didn’t realize how close his words here in 1947 mirror what I have been trying to say. So Matt I ask would you be so kindly to respond to Bertrand Russell on behalf of what I have been trying to convey?

Bertrand Russell (1947)

Proof of God

Here there comes a practical question which has often troubled me. Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.

I never know whether I should say "Agnostic" or whether I should say "Atheist". It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line


Matt McCormick said...

I appreciate your trying to educate us, CS. But you're 60 years behind the curve. Here's your list of respectable philosophers whose works you need to catch up on:
Martin, Drange, Mackie, Rowe, Grim, Gale, Everitt, Oppy, Pollock, Dennett, Schellenberg, Kitcher, Nielsen, Papineau, Salmon, Sober, Smith, etc. There's a full bibliography of sources here:

If you really think there's something fundamentally flawed with the whole project of provided a philosophical justification for atheism such that one can claim to know that there is no God, then your beef is with all of them as much as with me. Please get back to me with your analysis of the foolish mistakes that all of them are making as soon as you can--I don't want to waste my time on a mistake. MM

Anonymous said...


My intent wasn’t to post someone who supported my position as you have done but to ask you why you think Russell is incorrect. The key to Russell's thinking as well as the mainstream field of logicians and scientist is that you cannot prove a negative because you are required to use the lack of evidence for evidence of something (there is no God). This is pretty simple to understand and many atheist try to flood the internet with the misconception of proving a negative by using a straw man suggesting you can prove Fred is not at the door, which is testable and not what the problem of proving the negative is about - a case of arguing from ignorance.

Matt, you cannot tell me that you can disprove that there is an invisible imp in your closet or living room with Bayesian reasoning, so why can you do so with God? The very reason invisible imps, Gods etc aren’t testable in science is very much tied to why you cannot prove a negative. Scientist do not go around claiming they have disproved Genii’s, magic, or any other supernatural panorama. But scientists will claim they have no evidence for such things, I believe I already pointed out where in your position you have mistaken in using lack of evidence for you position that there is no God - that the available evidence just doesn’t pan out for God's existence. this is in your own words and if you cannot recognize that you are committing the fallacy of argumentum ignorantum then I suggest you review your position more carefully. Just as Russell stated that when he speaks to a philosophical audience he would say he is an agnostic because he knows there's no logical demonstrative proof. But you Matt aren’t giving the folks on here a an argument for God’s nonexistence through philosophical means but through practice and convenience.

This all relates to the fact that atheist appear to have their belief system based on an article of faith of their own. Why? Because they have no way to logical prove God doesn’t exist - they cannot prove a negative. And this a long held view where the lack of evidence cannot serve for the evidence of lack thereof.

My theory is that atheist just become lazy and rather then deal with the cognitive distance of not rationally knowing God exist or not resort to a default position. But this isn’t an argument its an explanation and shall serve as such.