The Logic of Atheism
Chuck Doswell - 15 April 2011
In some essays I’ve made available on the Web, I’ve discussed the
nature of “proof” in science. Atheists frequently make the
assertion that it's impossible to "prove" a negative proposition.
For instance, I might postulate a being made up entirely of a plate of spaghetti and meatballs that has created us and the universe.
I’d have to show by some purely logical argument that such a being is
in fact impossible. You can argue, for instance, that no plate of
spaghetti and meatballs has ever even shown any sign of being capable
of thought, let alone the ability to create a universe. However,
such an argument is empirical rather than logical -- that is, it's
based on existing evidence. There could be a pasta dinner plate somewhere
in the universe that’s sentient and in fact is omniscient and
omnipotent. To say that an omniscient, omnipotent pasta dinner is
impossible is to claim your own omniscience, at the very least.
Unfortunately, no human being can make such a claim legitimately.
This hypothetical pasta dinner being must remain a logical possibility, no matter how absurd it might seem.
Of course, it’s possible to "prove" some sorts of negative statements,
provided the standard of "proof" is not absolute. Suppose I
propose that the President of the United States is a being made up of a
plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Given that many of us followed
the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, and we
regularly see broadcasts of his news conferences and various
Presidential activities, it would be reasonable to consider this an
empirical demonstration of the negative: the President of the
United States is pretty evidently not a being made up of a dinner of
spaghetti and meatballs. Unfortunately, common, everyday
experience is not even up to the standards of scientific evidence (such
experience would be described as anecdotal evidence), so it's quite
distant from a purely logical argument capable of providing absolute
proof. Nevertheless, many of us accept our own personal
experiences as pretty compelling evidence that the US President is not
a being made from a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
What sort of evidence can we muster for the non-existence of a
particular supernatural deity? Several books have been written to
show the "evidence" against the existence of the supernatural beings
described in monotheistic religions. I applaud such efforts, as
they constitute a major reason why someone should be skeptical about
the deities proposed in the major monotheistic religious cults (Yes, I
consider them cults!). But they always fail to attain that
impossibly high bar of absolute proof (of the sort embodied in
mathematical, rather than scientific, "proof" standards).
Therefore, the existence of the postulated deity has to remain at least
a logical possibility, despite the absence of much in the way of
But consider the pragmatic, relatively attainable standard of
scientific evidence. The Law of Gravity first proposed by Isaac
Newton is an example of how scientific evidence for a hypothesis can be
pretty compelling, even if it's not absolute proof. Suppose you
were to dispute the Law of Gravity on purely logical grounds, claiming
that it doesn’t work, or whatever. How confident might you be
that you could, for instance, hurl yourself off a precipice into a
canyon two hundred meters deep and yet gravity would not operate on you
according to Newton's Law of Gravity so as to dash your fragile body on
the rocks below? It’s logically possible using the laws of
quantum mechanics to propose you might survive the experience of
throwing yourself off a cliff (without a parachute, of course), but
it's extremely unlikely! It’s so unlikely as to render it
pragmatically impossible, even if the logical possibility of survival
still exists. I can in all practical matters operate as if I
believe in the non-existence of a supernatural deity, even though I
also maintain that such a being is still a remote logical possibility.
If you believe in a supernatural deity who blesses you with faith in
him/her/it, then perhaps you trust that your deity will intervene on
your behalf when you jump off that cliff. Just how confident are
you that your deity will act to prevent your death? But wait! If
that deity were to perform such a "miracle", that would constitute
stunning new evidence of his/her/its existence! Unlike in
biblical times, your deity apparently is unable to intervene because
he/she/it would give away his/her/its existence (Exactly why is this
forbidden now, but wasn’t forbidden in biblical times? I see no
obvious reason for this change of heart on the part of the proposed
deity.)! Too bad for you, though -- despite your unwavering
faith, the outcome is almost certainly your demise on the rocks at the
base of the precipice. Masking his/her/its existence apparently
trumps saving you, but at least you get to go to heaven and live in
eternal bliss in compensation for your faith. But wait!
Isn't suicide a mortal sin? Your act of faith could be
interpreted as suicidal. Oops! Sorry, but you're set to
live out the rest of eternity in torment for the sin of killing
yourself. But you’re compensated in your endless agony because
you know your deity loves you!!
Believers might wish to conduct this scientific experiment as a test of
their faith. Are you willing to show us how sincerely you believe
in your deity!