This is a post I’m re-blogging from The Cartesian Theist:
Prove God! [Part1]
This has to be the single most commonly made demand on me as a theist on the internet. Curiously I don’t recall ever having been given this demand in a real conversation (that is a conversation which takes place fact to face for those of you who still communicate in the old-fashioned way!) but one that only happens on the web. I have no idea if there’s something to that or not.
I am going to defend the view that this is an unreasonable request and therefore, if I am right, not meeting an unreasonable request is quite reasonable.
Wikipedia begins defining the philosophical use of ‘proof’ by saying it “…is an argument or sufficient evidence for the truth of a proposition.” That’s not a bad place to start but it is a matter of fact that different people have differing opinions on what makes the evidence sufficient (and also what may even be considered to be evidence) which means the definition ends up being somewhat vacuous. Often when I ask people what they mean by the word they say that a proof of x is something which makes unbelief in x impossible. In other words this evidence would be so compelling that they would not be able to deny it. This sounds very much like something which philosophers might call a formal proof. Another comment such atheists often make is that since not everyone on the planet believes in God that there cannot be proof of his existence which is sufficient to make them theists. One You Tuber, so confident that no proof for God can ever be provided, promises to close his account should proof of God ever be provided! Evidently such people think proof is something which would convince almost everybody on the planet since it’s so demonstrable. Let us use this as a working definition.
Now there are a whole range of problems with this approach and in Part 2 I will give a few reasons why. For now, however, here is a task which will demonstrate one major problem.
What is the evidence for the following things? Actually think about it as you read them and also think about whether the evidence would be enough to prove [in the sense identified above] the matter to yourself and then whether that proof would be sufficient to prove it to another human being. You may wish to list what evidence you could summon.
1] That you know the name given to you at birth.
2] That the earth is not flat.
3] That the person you call ‘mother’ is your biological mother.
4] That torturing someone for no reason is wrong.
5] That there are minds other than your own.
6] That the colour you call ‘red’ really is the same colour everyone else calls ‘red’.
7] That this world we live in is not just a virtual reality game or dream [Matrix/Inception].
8] That you think what you think you think.
Is your evidence so great that you would claim to have ‘proof’? You will probably know where I’m going to go in Part 2 already if you took this challenge on and thought about it…
Prove God! [Part 2]
So how did you do? In my last post I asked you to think about the evidence for eight things. I asked you if the amount of evidence you could provide would amount to you being able to say you could prove it. Let us take a couple of examples:
3] Perhaps you thought of taking your mother for DNA testing? Only problem is that hospitals have made mistakes in the past. In this country a few years back a hospital contacted a number of women to tell them they had cancer when they did not. We know that mistakes can be made in either the procedure itself or in the administrative procedure. So even if you had that piece of paper with the DNA result in the affirmative would you have proof? Let me come back to that question in a moment…
7] This is an extremely interesting question which goes back, at least, to the time of Plato and his allegory of ‘The Cave’.
The Wachowski brothers updated this allegory in the 1999 cult classic film ‘The Matrix’. For those of you who know Plato’s allegory we have the cave represented by the computer programme, the prisoners by those in the Matrix, the shadows by the sensory appearances of things inside the Matrix, the image manipulators by the A.I. in the form of the agents and, ultimately the Architect. We even have part of the narrative of the story played out as the prisoner escapes the cave and his eyes hurt [remember Neo asking Morpheus why his eyes hurt when he arrives in the ‘real world’?] and he returns into the cave to save the other prisoners [what Neo continues to try to do beginning at the end of the first film].
So how do we know that we are not in some such construct? Perhaps this is ‘Earth 2012 edition’ [where characters now think they’re real!]? Maybe it’s worse and we’re not even in a pod in the real world or even a detached brain in a vat? Perhaps we are just constructs of the most realistic SIMS game ever invented by some incredibly advanced civilisation? And we haven’t even got to dreams or Inception yet!
Now some of you will be frustrated at this point. This is why some people hate philosophy. Even if this is the case it does not change anything, at least, practically speaking. Well maybe or maybe not but what this thought experiment does demonstrate is that we don’t have proof for even our own existence which is something we usually take to be self-evident and therefore proven. And this leads us back to our question of whether we can have proof.
The answer may very much depend on exactly how sceptical you are. Those who are extremely sceptical of almost everything [“hyperbolic sceptics”] won’t be willing to let you suggest you have proof for any of these things but usually they will go further and suggest you don’t have any evidence either.
I would suggest that it all depends on where you start from and why. Some suggest that in order to have any meaningful dialogue we have to allow some things to be assumed from the outset. But then this raises the key question of who gets to decide what those assumptions are and whether they make a foundation for other knowledge or not. Some want to suggest that we can assume that the world exists, we exist, the senses mostly give us truthful information about our world and that our reasoning faculties usually are likewise. But many philosophers wonder on what basis we desire to make these assumptions acceptable and why the list ends there.
For now it ought to be enough to note that the request for proof is, frankly, a naïve one. It is a request which most people cannot meet over a huge number of really important matters. Therefore the question ought to be whether belief in God is rational and probable and what evidence can be given to make such a case. However, admitting this causes mass panic in lay atheist circles since this would mean needing to read professional Christian philosophers and how many of them are willing to do that?