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You can’t disprove the nonexistent

June 13, 2011

A couple of my LDS friends have recently commented that I can’t disprove the existence of God. One wrote, “you still cannot provide a scrap of evidence that God does not exist,” and another wrote, “It would be hard to prove that there is or is no God.” My friends are absolutely right.

What they are failing to understand is:

1)   A lack of evidence for something doesn’t mean the thing must therefore exist.
2)   The burden of proof rests on the person making the positive claim.

Two of my favorite examples illustrating this common logical fallacy is Carl Sagan’s “Dragon In My Garage” and Bertrand Russell’s analogy of the Celestial Teapot.* The accompanying videos below both make the points well and are suitable for kids.

The dragon example goes like this:

Suppose I tell you there is a dragon in my garage. Surely you’d want to check it out, to see for yourself.

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle—but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.” And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?

If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.

The teapot example is as follows:

Many religious people speak as though it were up to atheists to disprove religious claims rather than the religious to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake.

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is unreasonable and arrogant to doubt it, you’d correctly think I was talking nonsense.

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, disbelief in the teapot would be nearly impossible for most people to comprehend.

*I’ve adapted these two stories slightly from their original versions.

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  1. It seems to me, AD, that god is an unnecessary hypothesis. That is, there seems to be nothing at all that you need to posit the existence of deity to explain.

  2. Jonathan permalink

    As I am one of the quoted friends, I feel particularly obliged to comment.

    The skeptic’s philosphy seems rather straightforward: if it cannot be directly observed, it must be assumed untrue until observable. As a skeptical person myself, I see the reasoning for this need to observe. However, in science, theories and principles are based entirely on inferences of tangential observations, not on observation of the principle. In many cases, those inferences are great steps away from being truly provable, falsifiable, or even well-supported. They can be quite elaborate and do well to explain an observed phenomenon, and yet they are inferred entirely from limited observation. Let’s take a look at string theory. This is a respected theory intended to tie together quantum mechanics and relativity. It claims to predict most phenomena in the universe, yet it has been based largely on assumptions of the properties of matter. Not without its critics, it is still highly regarded and many scientists believe it could ultimately yield greater understanding. But surely, as our understanding grows, our assumptions will change with relation to both the theory and our understanding of matter in general. While it has by no means been proven, many scientists are willing to take a “leap of faith” and vest great energies into the development of this theory.

    Similarly, a belief in God could be viewed in like manner: it is a theory, not yet proven, and indeed, a farcry from such. Early concepts of deity assumed that he dictated every action in life, from the rising and setting of the sun to the moments a human felt the urge to pee. As our understanding has broadened, our theories and understanding of deity can change: some believe that he set events in motion and has taken a back seat from there, others believing that his influence on the world is largely through whispers to the human mind, still others holding that he has a direct hand in events. While these varying theories have not been proven, the evidence that a God even CAN exist is usually overlooked by atheists, while that evidence is viewed, in conjunction with a “leap of faith” by believers, as verification that he DOES exist.

    As stated before, there is at least one worthwhile reason to at least consider the possibility that a supernatural being can exist: laws in this universe. While brilliant theorists like Stephen Hawking believe those laws account for the development of everything and that God would merely be redundant, there is no explanation of why those laws exist in the first place. I should note that Mr. Hawking, who I guarantee is smarter than anyone who enters this forum, for most of his life did believe in God. Regardless of his views now, one can look at the Stephen Hawking of even 5 years ago, still more intelligent than each of us, and the fact that he then accepted the existence of deity as a compelling reason to grant more consideration.

    Ultimately, I do not feel that I bear any “burden of proof.” In science, there are a multitude of methods for observing and collecting data. Religion is simply another way. While my personal experiences cannot be transferred to your consciousness, that does not make it empirical. The only way for you to prove my experiments true or false is by replication. Since most atheists have come to the point that they refuse to genuinely attempt replication (after all, there is no need to search for God, Odin, or Amun-Ra), they find those experiments to be untrustworthy. I feel my proof was obtained in my own personal manner. I don’t have to prove it to anyone here. All I ever intended to do is provide perspective.

    As a post script, I’d like to refer readers to Carl Sagan’s Contact. I can’t say I’ve read the book, though my understanding is that the film is pretty faithful to it. Assuming the message is anywhere along the same lines, Carl Sagan, the same renowned atheist (whom I also respect) to whom Kevin appeals in this post, makes a point that sometimes we cannot prove what we have experienced and observed. While he rejects God, he surprisingly simultaneously seems to defend those who embrace Him.

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