On the Inability to Prove or Disprove Religion


I recently felt inclined to respond to one of the less enlightened posts on Slashdot (slashdot.org) about the argued nature of the existence of deity.  This is, as some of you might be aware, a topic that comes up at every possible opportunity on /. discussions, and it usually devolves into a conversation that goes something like this:

A: God exists!

B: No way!  Prove it!

C: You suck!

D: Science says you’re a butt-head!

You get the idea.  Of course, there are some people who try to discuss the subject in reasonable and/or logical terms, but even those comments tend to lack a certain something in the realm of analyzing the nature of that very discussion–which I find must be done before any such discussion can be productive.

Normally, as you might expect, I don’t bother engaging in such asinine debate, but on this occasion, I decided to take the time and bother to prove–with logic–just how pointless a typical incarnation of religious discussion is.  My response is below (omitting content related to other, mostly unrelated parts of that thread.)  This quote, immediately below, is a response to my prior statement (in-passing) that atheism and agnosticism are, despite common conceptions, beliefs about God, and could thereby be reasonably considered religions of a sort.  (This has, in point of fact, been argued in several US court cases, so as to allow certain angry people the rights to do certain angry things–as well as to affirm the sensible right to avoid having religion unreasonably pressed upon them–but in normal conversation, most atheists and agnostics seem to take offense at such a claim.  Such is human nature, I think.)

Being theism-free is “being theism-free”. Understanding that superstition is not supported by evidence is not strictly necessary to being free of theism, as one may merely be indifferent to teachings of witch-doctors.

Prove your god exists or f*** off [censorship added for civility and child-safety]. Do it now. Here. Immediately, with no Faith as a requirement for belief. If your Sky Fairie is real, prove it and end the discussion for all time.

–couchslug on Slashdot

Excellent points, but the points you’ve just made are not the ones you think they are.

If I understand correctly, you believe that being concerned with deity is invalid. Hence, you have a specific belief about how ideas of deity ought to be treated. Thanks for the clarification.

Furthermore, I would note that the concept of “faith” and “proof” are yet at-debate amongst mathematicians, who have yet to determine what about geometric proof or logic–in any of their various forms (current/past)–make them provable at all. According to Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglass Hofstadter (with works cited therein), this very problem of circular proof requirements (called “Strange Loops”)–such as, “geometric proofs are valid because we can prove them with geometric proofs” (or with logic, which, itself requires proof; and on and on)–has been a topic of major debate and study since before the 20th century, and remains so to this day. Principia Mathematica was written to deal with this problem (through the creation of non-self-referencing sets, and complex rules that govern them), until an enterprising individual by the name of Kurt Gödel proved that the system of Principia Mathematica can only function insomuch as it can prove that it is, itself, valid–which violates many of the essential, core doctrines that make it valid at all, since in P.M., no system or statement is allowed to refer to itself; thus:

“Principia Mathematica is valid because of X Y Z…”

…violates hierarchical set theory, and therefore INVALIDATES Principia Mathematica. Of course, further systems have been developed, but as Dr. Hofstadter so well indicates in his Pulitzer-winning discourse, none have adequately exorcised the problem of Strange Loops, and as such, no form of mathematical logic (including that used in a formal debate) has yet been determined to be indisputably valid, itself.

So, with relation to proving that there is or is not a God (or multiple):

Religion cannot prove the existence of God, even if he manifested himself in-person and said “hi,” because the idea of a deity is an inherently religious belief, and could be seen with roughly equal validity as a manifestation of technology, biology, or physics; thus, no miracle at all can ever possibly be considered a miracle, unless one first subscribes to the religious idea of miracles–and thereby violates any prohibition against circular logic by requiring self-evident proof.

Likewise, religion cannot be DIS-proven, since in order to do so, one must accumulate the sum total of all possible knowledge and understanding, and then use that understanding to say, in essence, “there’s nothing else out there”–which, itself is a “circular” statement, in that it’s predicated on the truthfulness of the presumption that all knowledge has, in fact, been acquired and understood, already.

Therefore, the best that either side can ever prove, in isolation from faith of any kind (A.K.A. assumptions)–whether it be faith in the completeness of the set of knowledge being used, or faith that an un-provable religious belief is correct, despite a lack of deductive evidence–is that neither position is, in fact, able to be proven at this time.

Therefore, to state that a conversation or theory about religion or deity is, in the first place, invalid commits the “begging the question” logical fallacy by requiring the conclusion that deity cannot exist to be true, before one can deduce that conversation about deity is invalid–which, as deduced above, cannot be done with logic or mathematics as we currently understand them. In point of fact, sensible theologians are willing to admit that religion is something that you essentially “know in your heart” or some such–which is a flowery admittance that religion is a strictly personal belief system (regardless of what certain organizations want people to think) that can only be “proven” by inference internal to whomever wishes to believe. This, incidentally, cannot be logically termed valid or invalid, in a factual sense, for the reasons noted above. One can, of course, say that the “road” to such a conclusion of religious belief exists outside the realm of logic-as-we-know-it; and that would be a correct statement–but still wouldn’t invalidate any conclusion reached in that fashion, since a correct conclusion can be reached by incorrect premises and still be correct.

So, my dear couchslug, you have committed at least two logical fallacies with your assertions and demands above:
1) That the existence of deity, or lack thereof can be proven at all depends upon the ability of our current logical systems to self-reference in order to prove truth–which our current systems prohibit (via the broad description of what makes a “non-sequitur,” essentially).
2) That discussion or belief about God is already proven to be invalid, since God cannot be proven to exist, which itself is an assertion based partly upon the conclusion that he/she/it does not, in fact, exist–which requires your conclusion–and ultimately the outcome of the issue at-debate–to be true, in order to prove your conclusion (“begging the question”).

In conclusion, it should be noted that I do, in fact, have a specific set of religious beliefs that are almost entirely encompassed by the official doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  (The remainder are things I’ve discovered on my own, which have not [yet] been declared in any official statements.)  I simply choose to admit that my beliefs cannot be proven to an unbeliever; such a person who wants to know/understand what I do about religion simply must find a way to get there by faith, as logic has demonstrated itself to be an entirely inadequate tool for determining religious truths.  I think this is as-intended.

References:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_mathematica [wikipedia.org]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godel_escher_bach [wikipedia.org]
(as well as the text of the above book, itself)

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7 thoughts on “On the Inability to Prove or Disprove Religion

      • When you say you are or were “an agnostic”, do you mean: a. you find equal reasons to believe there is and isn’t a god, or b). you find more reasons to believe one way, but the weight of those reasons don’t reach some standard of proof, e.g., beyond a reasonable doubt?
        I have never met anyone who means a. When pressed, they always say they have more reasons to believe one way or the other. Virtually all agnostics mean b. And, in that case, I usually ask: What is the standard of proof you’re using? Most apply some type Pascal’s wager standard, i.e., unless you’re 100% certain there is no god, you better at least claim to be an agnostic and have a chance of avoiding hell. This is fear dominating reason. Others try, but rarely can articulate the standard they are using. So, I think it’s actually harder to be an agnostic than an intellectually comfortable believer or an unbeliever.

      • Al,

        By “agnostic,” I mean both A and B.

        First, I was in the “I find more reason to not believe” camp (more atheist than agnostic, but not actively claiming non-existence, necessarily). Later, I found more reasons to believe, such that the “scales” were essentially “balanced.” Finally, I’ve moved into the “more reason to believe than to not believe” camp.

        While I agree with your assessment about most “agnostics,” and just how valid that appellation is toward describing them, there are a rare few who are unconcerned with the “fear” aspect, and who genuinely feel that they have “evidence” (that is, what the individual considers evidence, since there’s no real standard for that) supporting both postulations in roughly equal portions.

        In my experience, most “agnostics” are really atheists who are following a Pascal’s Wager-like method, or who are too concerned about offending other people who do believe (who, in truth, probably have no reason to be offended–not that this ever stops people from being offended about anything–and especially about religion). So, yes, I agree that the term “agnostic” is polluted with what I can best estimate to be cowardice of some form or other.

        That being said, some people who consider themselves “agnostic” actually are just that, so it’s unfair to over-generalize the invalidity of that term.

  1. I agree, we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a god using set-theory or any other re-constructed logic, i.e., any of the formal logical systems that we have invented to explain how we think, e.g., Aristotelian logic. In fact, using re-constructed logic, we probably cannot prove with absolute certainty the existence of anything.

    So, relying on re-constructed logic to prove or disprove anything is, at best, impractical (useless). At worst, it is clearly misguided since logic in use , i.e., the way people actually think as opposed to reconstructed logic, tells me with absolutely certain that I exist. Set theory is irrelevant when I can prove to myself with 100% certitude that I exist.

    A better way to approach the existence of god is to: 1. Pick a god, e.g., the god of Abraham that is worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Then 2, create an hypothesis that describes the existence of that god in terms of its attributes, e.g., created all things, knows and has power over all things, and determines who goes to heaven and who doesn’t. Then 3, look for evidence to determine whether the hypothesis is more probably true or more probably false. Then finally 4, make a reasoned judgment and live accordingly. (My conclusion is that the god hypothesis is almost certainly more probably not true.)

    • Al, I agree that what you’ve described is a more sensible way of looking at it. As I think you’re pointing out (more specifically than I did), one can only truly use reasoning of any kind to prove a thing to one’s own self: I exist; God created the heavens and earth, etc. The missing puzzle piece here seems to be that even that kind of proof about religious beliefs can only be done by inference, since anything that we can’t know the entirety of the truth of at any given moment cannot be proven by deduction.

      As you’ve noted, though, inference is a useful thing, and though not strictly logical, it helps us every single day as we try to live and get things done. (“Yesterday, the grocery store’s sign said that they’re open until 9pm today. That almost certainly indicates that if I go over at 8pm, I’ll be able to shop.”) Of course, if inference sounds a lot like faith, it’s because they’re much the same thing.

      –Dane

  2. Pingback: The Laws of Spirituality | Dane Mutters

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