I’m going to break my sequence of concepts to present an interesting analogy I just came up with to explain why this argument is subtly wrong:

“There’s no way to prove that god does not exist”

Say I have two urns:

  • One is filled with numbered green balls, all of which lie in the range of 1 to 100.
  • The other is filled with numbered red balls all of which lie in the range of 1 to 500.

I draw a sequence of balls from a single urn, announce the numbers and I then ask you what color you think the urn I picked was.

Obviously, if there is a single ball >= 101, then you can assert with 100% probability that the urn is red. However, there’s no possible sequence of balls that could definitively prove a green urn. But if I keep on drawing balls under 100, consistently and without a single ball over 100. The more balls are being drawn, the more sure you are that I picked the green urn.

I view this as analogous to the problem of the existence of god. The space of possible universes in which god does not exist is a strict subset of the space of possible universes in which god does exist. It’s therefore strictly impossible to prove that god does not exist.

Each observation is like drawing a ball out of the urn and each observation can be consistent with an atheistic or supernatural interpretation of the world. Say you observed stones independently arranging to form the words of the koran, the ten commandments written in fire across the sky and routine, repeatable, spontaneous limb regeneration after praying. If any one of these happened (and they were verified to be bona fide miracles and not just what seemed like miracles), it would be the equivilant of drawing ball 328: absolute proof that god exists. But we keep on picking balls and observing the world and they keep on being strictly naturalistic phenomena.

Sure, it’s still possible that god exists and we’re going to find evidence of him if we keep on looking harder. But to me, we’ve picked enough balls that it’s not where the smart money is anymore.

Responses

  1. Michael Toomim says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 5:36 am (#)

    You are invoking occam’s razor, aka the principle of parsimony.

    i think it’s the root of all philosophy: when throw out all your assumptions about how to explain your observations of the world, the most basic assertion you’re left with is that the simplest explanation is probably correct.

    for instance, suppose someone argues that a physical object you see like your hands doesn’t exist and is actually a figment of your imagination. then how do you explain all the other hands in the world? why don’t you have hands? why is your imagination different than everyone else’s? or why is everyone making up this idea of hands? how do people move objects? isn’t it simpler to just believe in hands?

    occam’s razor doesn’t prove that god doesn’t exist, but it lets you argue that unless god is the simplest explanation for your world, you shouldn’t believe in god cause you’ll probably be wrong and you’re wasting your time thinking about him.

  2. Michael Toomim says:

    October 29th, 2008 at 10:36 pm (#)

    You are invoking occam’s razor, aka the principle of parsimony.

    i think it’s the root of all philosophy: when throw out all your assumptions about how to explain your observations of the world, the most basic assertion you’re left with is that the simplest explanation is probably correct.

    for instance, suppose someone argues that a physical object you see like your hands doesn’t exist and is actually a figment of your imagination. then how do you explain all the other hands in the world? why don’t you have hands? why is your imagination different than everyone else’s? or why is everyone making up this idea of hands? how do people move objects? isn’t it simpler to just believe in hands?

    occam’s razor doesn’t prove that god doesn’t exist, but it lets you argue that unless god is the simplest explanation for your world, you shouldn’t believe in god cause you’ll probably be wrong and you’re wasting your time thinking about him.

  3. mike says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 5:51 am (#)

    I have an invisible pink dragon in my garage. Now prove it does not exist.

  4. mike says:

    October 29th, 2008 at 10:51 pm (#)

    I have an invisible pink dragon in my garage. Now prove it does not exist.

  5. Trond Nilsen says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 8:24 am (#)

    See, your argument gives me (good) reasons not to believe in god (which I don’t), but it doesn’t _prove_ that god doesn’t exist. Neither, for that matter, does Occam’s Razor _prove_ that a more complex explanation of some phenomena is not true. In both cases, it merely provides (strong) evidence that the simple explanation should be accepted first.

    You _may_ have proved that believers are statistically irrational (Occam’s Razor being, after all, a statistical argument), but you’ve not proved non-existence. It’s easy to claim ‘non-evidence’, but an extra step is required to take that on to non-existence.

    Of course, for almost all practical purposes, non-evidence may as well be proof of non-existence – you don’t need to prove the non-existence of the Easter bunny, or that the Flying Spaghetti Monster, after all. Why should the Judeo-Christian God be any different. I’m only disagreeing with the purely abstract claim you made, not its implications..

  6. Trond Nilsen says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 1:24 am (#)

    See, your argument gives me (good) reasons not to believe in god (which I don’t), but it doesn’t _prove_ that god doesn’t exist. Neither, for that matter, does Occam’s Razor _prove_ that a more complex explanation of some phenomena is not true. In both cases, it merely provides (strong) evidence that the simple explanation should be accepted first.

    You _may_ have proved that believers are statistically irrational (Occam’s Razor being, after all, a statistical argument), but you’ve not proved non-existence. It’s easy to claim ‘non-evidence’, but an extra step is required to take that on to non-existence.

    Of course, for almost all practical purposes, non-evidence may as well be proof of non-existence – you don’t need to prove the non-existence of the Easter bunny, or that the Flying Spaghetti Monster, after all. Why should the Judeo-Christian God be any different. I’m only disagreeing with the purely abstract claim you made, not its implications..

  7. Hang says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 9:15 am (#)

    Yes, I’m building on a long precedent. The problem is, occam’s razor is true but it doesn’t work as an explanation, I’ve tried it. Occam’s razor is a powerful tool for people who accept it but it’s incredibly non-intuitive for those who are new to it. I’m hoping that this reframes the problem into one which makes intuitive sense to people.

  8. Hang says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 2:15 am (#)

    Yes, I’m building on a long precedent. The problem is, occam’s razor is true but it doesn’t work as an explanation, I’ve tried it. Occam’s razor is a powerful tool for people who accept it but it’s incredibly non-intuitive for those who are new to it. I’m hoping that this reframes the problem into one which makes intuitive sense to people.

  9. Hang says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 10:08 am (#)

    Here’s the difference between this and Occam’s razor. There are really at least two distinct reasons why theists have such a hard time understanding why atheism is even an intellectually credible position.

    One is that they disagree from a fundamentally philosophical standpoint. They might accept that supernatural events are not obviously manifest and that God only reveals himself to those willing to make the leap of faith. They accept only balls >100 are drawn but that the evidence for God lies somewhere else: in the human quest for meaning or the structure and order of life. In which case, the urn example lays explicit the areas of agreement and disagreement. In which case, Occam’s Razor is a valid counterargument and you can then move forward from there.

    The other is that they simply disagree with you on a factual level. To them, faith healing is real and demons have a manifest effect on the world. Miracles happen all the time and you would have to be *stupid* and *blind* to be an atheist. To them, it’s so obvious that supernatural events are happening that they never even consider that another person could view the world differently. What this example demonstrates is that yes, atheists too would be convinced by supernatural events. A ball with the number 417 would convince an atheist the urn is red just as easily as a bona fide miracle would convince them of God’s existence. The point of contention is on an interpretation of evidence, not philosophy and you can go into why the ball they think looks like a 417 actually looks like a 17 to you and thus, completely comfortably fitting into the green urn.

    If you differ on a factual level, then Occam’s Razor is completely a non convincing argument. If miracles are happening on a daily basis, then the simplest explaination really is that god exists.

  10. Hang says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 3:08 am (#)

    Here’s the difference between this and Occam’s razor. There are really at least two distinct reasons why theists have such a hard time understanding why atheism is even an intellectually credible position.

    One is that they disagree from a fundamentally philosophical standpoint. They might accept that supernatural events are not obviously manifest and that God only reveals himself to those willing to make the leap of faith. They accept only balls >100 are drawn but that the evidence for God lies somewhere else: in the human quest for meaning or the structure and order of life. In which case, the urn example lays explicit the areas of agreement and disagreement. In which case, Occam’s Razor is a valid counterargument and you can then move forward from there.

    The other is that they simply disagree with you on a factual level. To them, faith healing is real and demons have a manifest effect on the world. Miracles happen all the time and you would have to be *stupid* and *blind* to be an atheist. To them, it’s so obvious that supernatural events are happening that they never even consider that another person could view the world differently. What this example demonstrates is that yes, atheists too would be convinced by supernatural events. A ball with the number 417 would convince an atheist the urn is red just as easily as a bona fide miracle would convince them of God’s existence. The point of contention is on an interpretation of evidence, not philosophy and you can go into why the ball they think looks like a 417 actually looks like a 17 to you and thus, completely comfortably fitting into the green urn.

    If you differ on a factual level, then Occam’s Razor is completely a non convincing argument. If miracles are happening on a daily basis, then the simplest explaination really is that god exists.

  11. PStryder says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 5:43 pm (#)

    This is missing the point entirely. From a strict logic standpoint: It is IMPOSSIBLE to prove a negative. End of discussion.

    You cannot prove God does not exist. Nor, does the atheist have to. The atheist is not making a positive claim. The theist is making the claim, therefore the theist has to prove that God DOES, in fact, exist. To date, there has been no valid proof of God’s existence. (I would add, “that I know of,” except for the fact that if there WAS a valid proof of God’s existence put forward at some point in the past, no one would be arguing the point.)

  12. PStryder says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 10:43 am (#)

    This is missing the point entirely. From a strict logic standpoint: It is IMPOSSIBLE to prove a negative. End of discussion.

    You cannot prove God does not exist. Nor, does the atheist have to. The atheist is not making a positive claim. The theist is making the claim, therefore the theist has to prove that God DOES, in fact, exist. To date, there has been no valid proof of God’s existence. (I would add, “that I know of,” except for the fact that if there WAS a valid proof of God’s existence put forward at some point in the past, no one would be arguing the point.)

  13. Tony Morris says:

    October 31st, 2008 at 2:14 am (#)

    Existence, with an ‘e’.

  14. Tony Morris says:

    October 30th, 2008 at 7:14 pm (#)

    Existence, with an ‘e’.

  15. efrique says:

    October 31st, 2008 at 2:11 pm (#)

    PDtryder said: From a strict logic standpoint: It is IMPOSSIBLE to prove a negative. End of discussion.

    I read this a lot. The claim is false, however, in general.

    For example, I can prove a negative any time that the negative can be proved by examining a finite number of cases, simply by examining all of them.

    So “No coins exist inside my pocket” is a negative, which can be proven by checking my pocket for coins. So, from a logic standpoint, the claim that proofs of negatives are impossible is false.

  16. efrique says:

    October 31st, 2008 at 7:11 am (#)

    PDtryder said: From a strict logic standpoint: It is IMPOSSIBLE to prove a negative. End of discussion.

    I read this a lot. The claim is false, however, in general.

    For example, I can prove a negative any time that the negative can be proved by examining a finite number of cases, simply by examining all of them.

    So “No coins exist inside my pocket” is a negative, which can be proven by checking my pocket for coins. So, from a logic standpoint, the claim that proofs of negatives are impossible is false.

  17. efrique says:

    October 31st, 2008 at 2:13 pm (#)

    Apologies for the typo in your name there PStryder

  18. efrique says:

    October 31st, 2008 at 7:13 am (#)

    Apologies for the typo in your name there PStryder

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