An atheist law professor gets a bit muddled about atheism

January 18, 2014 • 11:58 am

Dr. Daniel H. Cole of Indiana University describes himself on his webpage as “Professor of Law (Maurer School) and a member of the Affiliated Faculty of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. I am also a Life Member of Clare Hall (College of Advanced Studies), University of Cambridge.” Judging by his site’s title, “Law, Economics & Cycling”, and the heavy concentration on bikes, I’d say he’s a pretty avid cyclist as well.

His latest post deals with my critique of the Sophisticated Ground-of-Being arguments for God, and he generally agrees that they’re not by any means the best and most irrefutable arguments for God. I do have a few quarrels with what he said (when don’t I?), but it’s refreshingly on the mark for a high-profile professor—one who admits his atheism.  I’ll reproduce the entirety of his new post, “Jerry Coyne says the best arguments for God are flimsy”.  His post is indented; my comments are not.

Jerry Coyne says the best arguments for God are flimsy.

Here. And I agree with him.

But I think he misses two of the best (but also flawed) arguments for the existence of some god(s):

(1) many people are comforted by a belief that some god (or other) exists, which obviously has no bearing on whether or not some god(s) exist(s) but is a valid normative (that is, non-empirical, non-positive) argument that some god(s) should exist;

Why is this even a good (must less “one of the best”) arguments for the existence of a god? It’s obviously not, and remember that Cole is claiming here to give arguments, albeit flawed ones, for an existence claim. Then he changes his argument so it’s not about actual existence, but an existence to be desired.  Well, I’d like a big icebreaker that could sail me and some friends to the Antarctic to see the penguins, but is it a “valid normative argument” that such an icebreaker “should” exist? And what does he mean by “should”? Maybe I’m being philosophically naive here, but Cole’s argument #1 doesn’t only fail to do what he says, but comes down to claiming that “if wishes were horses, even beggars could ride”.  On to #2:

(2) the absence of data does not warrant a conclusion that no god(s) exist(s), anymore than the failure to observe black swans warrants the conclusion that black swans do not exist. Thus, atheism, like any form of theism, is a matter not just of science but belief.* However, as Bertrand Russell argued about the celestial teapot, the burden of proof should rest on those who would posit the ontological existence of beings (natural or supernatural) about which we have no data. This goes for the mind (as opposed to the brain) and the soul, as well as the god(s).*

I disagree with much of this, starting with the notion that atheism is a form of theism (it isn’t) and is a matter of belief (it isn’t; it’s a matter of disbelief). Further, if there is an absence of data when the data should be there, then one can conclude—with various degrees of assurance, of course—that there is no god.  And, according to many theists, that data should be there. But it isn’t.  Would Cole argue that he can’t conclude that the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist because there is an absence of data? There have been many attempts to find Nessie; all have failed. Likewise, there is an absence of data for the existence of Bigfoot, dinosaurs in South America, and alien abductions.  Does Cole suspend judgment about those phenomena, too?

True, the burden of proof rests on those who make existence claims, but atheism is simply the lack of evidence for an existence claim.  Frankly, I’m surprised that a law professor, who is used to parsing arguments, would say this as “one of the best arguments for the existence of some god.” It’s no such thing, but simply the use of religious logic along the lines demonstrated in one of my favorite cartoons (see Cole’s second footnote, though):

religious logic baseball

Finally, Cole’s footnotes:

*The only scientifically pure position would be a feeble agnosticism. Atheism, including my own, requires an affirmative (scientifically unprovable) claim that no god(s) exist(s).

No, the scientifically pure position is a fairly robust agnosticism: we can’t demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no god, but we’re pretty sure about the matter (I’m a 6.9 on Dawkins’s 7-point scale) given the complete absence of evidence and the strong likelihood that religions were manmade. And Cole errs in assuming that any scientific (read “rational”) position requires “proof,” so that a strong atheist refusal to believe in gods requires us to “prove” that there are no gods. Well, no scientific position requires such “proof.” What we require is evidence, and no evidence is ever 100% beyond future disproof, though some comes pretty close (e.g., a molecule of table salt has one sodium and one chlorine atom). This first footnote is particularly puzzling in view of the second:

*By the way, the oft-made argument that it is impossible to prove a negative is inaccurate. In fact, it would not require a trained scientist to prove quite easily that I have not buttered my toast this morning simply by examining the toast just before its consumption.’

Here Cole is right on the money, although again I’d avoid the phrase “you can’t prove a negative” in favor of “you can’t be nearly certain of a negative.”  This argument, of course, is the Last Resort of the Religious: “Well, maybe the evidence is thin, but you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist.” It really surprises me that religionists even make such a dumb claim. If you try to rescue God in this way, you’re saving fairies, Bigfoot, Santa, and unicorns at the same time. You can be as certain as one can be (and you should bet every penny you have on it) that I do not have four legs or blue eyes. That’s as close to “proof of a negative” as you can get; in fact, it is “proof” in the conventional parlance, which, like Anthony Grayling, I take to mean something that is so sure that you’d bet everything you had on it.

After mulling this over, I guess I give professor Cole a C+ for this effort. The + is because he admits he’s an atheist.

94 thoughts on “An atheist law professor gets a bit muddled about atheism

  1. Daniel Cole:

    “Atheism, including my own, requires an affirmative … claim that no god(s) exist(s).”

    Well my atheism doesn’t. My atheism is a-{theism} not {a-the}-ism.

    In other words it is not-{god-ism} rather than {not-god}-ism.

    One can understand believers getting this wrong, but it’s a pity when self-labelled atheists also get it wrong.

  2. Weak/Strong agnosticism? Not sure what that means really, either you can’t know or you can know something. I agree that Deistic, apophatic slippery wriggly Gods are unfalsifiable and so being agnostic about them is intellectually honest from a scientific point of view. Perhaps that is all he meant? The qualifier “weakly” is unnecessary.

  3. In fact, it would not require a trained scientist to prove quite easily that I have not buttered my toast this morning simply by examining the toast just before its consumption.”

    Lawyers. Pffft. Define your terms, Sir.

    Maybe someone else buttered your toast. Maybe you buttered your toast yesterday. Maybe it wasn’t your toast.

    But what does “buttered my toast” really mean, Mr. Cole? Maybe you put a dollop of frozen butter on your toast and then removed it prior to the examination.

    Maybe your “toast” was the act of lifting your glass of prune juice and proclaiming “Here’s to the end of brain-washing young minds with religion.” Can you “butter” such a thing?

    Maybe you used a volatile form of “butter” (because what is “butter,” really?) that evaporated and left no trace.

    So much for proving a negative.

    1. This actually raises another point. Unlock passive butter, God is potentially an intelligent adversary who doesn’t want to be found and can hide.

      What we can know is that if such a God exists, hiding is his utmost goal. He will not, for example, answer the prayers of the faithful in a scientific study of prayer efficacy. So people who love him will suffer for his desire for unprovability.

      In fact, apparently constructed a universe to elaborately hide any apparent role for himself. The most elaborate and thorough act of deception ever perpetrated. Nothing seems more important to God than not being shown to exist.

      I’ve yet to see a theologian really come to grips with the implications of what this priority one (neener, neener you can’t find me) really implies about any hypothetical God as a moral being.

    2. And if a piece of unbuttered toast fell off the table, it would land on the side that would have been buttered, thereby proving you can’t choose what side of the toast not to butter.

      But, if you strap a piece of toast, butter-side up, onto the dorsal area of Schrodinger’s cat, and push the cat off the table, will the cat’s ability to always land on its feet be over-ridden by the propensity of the buttered toast to land butter-side down?

      And what if was Schrodinger’s toast?

    3. I’ve long thought this is one of the things that helps make a good scientist, or just a smart person in general: the ability to come up with possible variables, and to figure out how to isolate them.

  4. I would like to believe that an alien species colonized earth with hominids millions of years ago and they have watched over us and will intervene when/if we threaten harm to the planet.

    I would like to believe it, so it must be true! And from a bayesian probability standpoint, I think this is much more likely than a G-d.

    1. I’d like to believe I am actually a robot and can live forever by replacing parts.

      Also that I can sword fight.

      Like in Highlander.

      I like this believing stuff because you want it to be true and no one is allowed to tell you otherwise.

  5. I’m wondering why it isn’t possible to be a full 7 on the scale in regards to the abrahamic G.O.B god if we are taking normativity as a valid logical argument?

    If we look at it globally, the vast majority of the 7 billion people on earth don’t believe in it thus it doesn’t make sense not to be a 7.

    I guess that pretty much goes for all proposed gods thus far, or am I missing something about normative logic?

    1. I am, since the idea of a completely transcendent god is incoherent. At best you get a graduate student (or toddler!) in another hubble volume playing with inflationary spacetimes.

  6. Does the ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ phrase fit in here? That there is no physical evidence of a world wide flood is pretty convincing that one never occurred. On the other hand, if I fish in a pond for 30 minutes, and catch no fish, my comment would be I didn’t catch any fish from that pond, rather than saying there were no fish in the pond.

    1. Yes and you’d probably wonder after a while of not catching fish if it was your bait of if there were no fish in the pond. So, maybe you’d investigate further. Try different bait, go swim in the pond looking for fish. Maybe you’d even find out if something could’ve killed the fish. You’d analyze the data to see if there really were no fish in the pond.

      Likewise, for millennia humans have looked for signs of god – tangible ones. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

      So, the only logical conclusion is there isn’t one but we’ll keep looking.

      I’ve heard people try to say the same thing about other intelligent humans in the universe but one of those factors is the space and time are VAST and we haven’t been around for very long anyway. It could be this god fellow is vast too but we can wait and find out. It’s notable that a lot of SETI scientists were once believers.

  7. Proof of the claim “I have not buttered my toast this morning” is not a proof of a negative, and you should not have honored it as such. In proving, the claimant must show the EXISTENCE of a piece of toast with no butter. If he has already eaten it, you have no obligation to prove any negative. If he can show it to you, you are in a position to concede or dispute that butter EXISTS on the toast. Either way, he has the burden of proof to prove the positive.

      1. Lawyers are only required to convince a jury they are right. They don’t actually need to be right. Their logic may succeed if sufficiently bamboozling to the jury and the opposion, even if also to themselves.

  8. OK, a few comments:

    1. There seems to be some confusion here between agnosticism and forms of atheism. The lack of belief in a god (e.g., due to absence of evidence) is referred to as weak atheism, not agnosticism. The belief that there are no gods (e.g., due to evidence of absence) is referred to as strong atheism. Agnosticism is an independent belief structure based on what you believe one can know or not know.

    2. For strong atheism (there are no gods), I think the case is much stronger than simply the lack of evidence that should be there. There is quite strong evidence that there are no gods, at least of the specific ones claimed. The belief in god(s) are not created in a vacuum; they have histories and exact claims, and those both have been studied and tested. Origins, distortions, and evolution of these gods (defined and differentiated by the claims) can be traced and seen. There is also plenty of evidence on the cognitive “wiring” errors and tendencies that lead to god, given positive evidence that we just tend to make them up.

    One can, of course, always define a god around all finite claims made to date and for which no data is available (god of the gaps, “god = love” style equivocation), but we can then inquire about where they came up with the proposed claim and why. This is not the same as saying there is a lack of evidence for their claim, but positive evidence that they simply made it up.

    3. As briefly highlighted in the article, the problem also lies in the equivocation on the meaning of “proof”. To prove something does not mean to demonstrate anything else is impossible, and to prove something doesn’t exist does not mean that its existence isn’t possible. Only in purely abstract systems like mathematics can such closed form solutions be found. For tangible reality, where the rules are not predefined, standards of proof vary with probability and the practical consequences of the belief, e.g., “preponderance of the evidence” (>50% likely), “beyond a reasonable doubt” (say, >90%), “beyond a shadow of a doubt” (say, >99%).

    So yes, weak atheism is unquestionably warranted, and I think the case for strong atheism is very strong. I’m probably a 7-(1e-23) on Dawkins’ 7-scale, at least when it comes to any of the claimed gods so far, defined by their claimed properties.

    1. So yes, weak atheism is unquestionably warranted, and I think the case for strong atheism is very strong. I’m probably a 7-(1e-23) on Dawkins’ 7-scale, at least when it comes to any of the claimed gods so far, defined by their claimed properties.


      As long as there’s no positive proof ( observations or measurements ) for any of the proposed gods I see no logical reason not to be a 7.

  9. Plenty of opinion on buttered toast, but the claim that … “You can prove a negative in real life, so why not try to disprove our gods ?! “ is a fairly fresh piece of codswallop by the religious. On YouTube you can find Lane Craig trying to bluster out of a question on proof of negative by a student at one of his lectures. WLC, if I remember, stated that you can prove that no Tyrannosaurs exist today, or that there has never been a Muslim served in the Supreme Court, so why not try to disprove our gods?
    The trickery in the argument is palpable. Those dinosaurs and Muslims, and the act of buttering toast are readily recognised, and are known to have existed to the level that many definitions will suffice to identify the truth. But the gods have gone through millennia of refinement with the deliberate intention of making them so abstract that there are no definitions, and therefore they are either non-existent or they are beyond discussion. WLC should have said that you cannot disprove the non-existent!

    And the reason why the religious have defined their gods to be beyond discussion is because they only exist as a compulsive and irrational belief, like the beliefs of a paranoid person.
    The fact that a senior lawyer cannot punch his way out of the wet-tissue of the argument is disappointing. I hope that I am never arrested in Indiana if that is the best legal protection I could hope-for. Anyone could accuse me of being a priest or a pastor, and my lawyer would have no defence.

    Codswallop is English for the rejected fish-guts.

    1. It’s certainly true that (contrary to the trope) you can prove some negatives quite easily. For example, “There is no elephant in this room” is easy to prove, provided that we can all agree on a sensible definition of “elephant”. We can devise a finite search algorithm that is certain to uncover any elephant that is present.

      The problem arises when, after searching the room and proving conclusively that no elephant is present, we discover that “elephant” turns out not to mean quite what (almost) everyone thought it did. In fact, we have only ruled out naive elephants, the large unsophisticated mammals that nobody had ever really believed could possibly be present in the room. If fact, we are just embarrassing ourselves, because we have not ruled out the presence of a metaphorical elephant; or an elephant whose presence is detectable only subjectively to those who have a personal relationship with the elephant; or an intangible elephant that is, in fact, permeating the entire room as the ineffable ground of all being.

      1. I still maintain that that is not proving a negative. The claimant is postulating a positive: a room with no elephant in it. He has the burden of 1) setting the context of the existent “elephant” and 2) providing a method of examining the room to substantiate that no such existent exists in the room.

        I strongly urge thinkers to not give an inch on this “trope.”

        1. I had the same thought as you re: butter, toast, and negatives.

          But then I thought: “well, I could rephrase anything as a positive”. You’ve done that with the elephant/room example. We could say the same thing about god and the universe: a universe with no god in it.

          What would be an example of a legitimate negative, ie, that can’t be rephrased as a positive?

          1. Every legitimate claim IS a positive. The claimant is floating the truth that everything in his argument exists and has been rationally identified within context. He further then claims certain relationships between all these existing things; those arguments are subject to checking for fallacy.

            I say, hold every thinker to that: do not let them make arguments about existents which have no identification in objective reality. Do not give them the slightest crack in the door. They want to make claims about God, make them identify the existent “God.” Not the imaginary identity, the actual, objective identity.

            The way we induce definitions is only through identifying the existent, scientifically. To allow someone to make arguments and claims about something whose identity has not been proven rationally, in objective reality, is to give them the biggest get-out-of-jail card they could dream about.

            So, if someone claims “I have sprinkled essence of God’s Love on my toast.” And you say “prove it”, and they say, well you can’t prove I didn’t” then you say, “well, I stipulate the existence and identity of toast, but that other item has no identity in objective reality. Can you first show it to me?”

    2. I agree with all of the above comment except this:

      The fact that a senior lawyer cannot punch his way out of the wet-tissue of the argument is disappointing. I hope that I am never arrested in Indiana if that is the best legal protection I could hope-for. Anyone could accuse me of being a priest or a pastor, and my lawyer would have no defence.

      A few “senior lawyers” do end up moving from private practice into teaching at state university law schools. Those that are assiduous or lucky enough to obtain professorships or tenured positions have demonstrated deep knowledge of 1 or 2 areas of the law and skill at particular types of thinking and writing . . . not necessarily good indicators of skill at logical argument outside the legal or political realms.

      If I needed to hire a lawyer to defend me in civil or criminal case and if my choices were limited to the pool of law school professors, I’d choose an adjunct professor (who receives low pay and no benefits), because he or she would be more likely than a full or tenured professor to have extensive experience in private practice.

      I got my law degree from the I.U. Bloomington Law School several decades ago, long before Mickey Maurer gave a boatload of money to the school, which reciprocated by lengthening the school’s name. I do not know Prof. Cole and cannot determine his age, when he got his law degree, or how long he worked in private practice. His bio suggests that his areas of expertise are property law and environmental law.

      Anyone who gets arrested in Indiana will have other worries and would not be able to hire Prof. Cole in any event: He is not admitted (licensed) to practice law in this state.

  10. (1) many people are comforted by a belief that some god (or other) exists, which obviously has no bearing on whether or not some god(s) exist(s) but is a valid normative (that is, non-empirical, non-positive) argument that some god(s) should exist;

    Is this a normative belief also: a mother is comforted that her dead child should exist and therefore does? The mother would most likely get psychiatric intervention. People believing in the spiritual realm expect and get preferential treatment because many of us collude with them.

    Since it is challenging for humanity to let go of religious beliefs because they have been with us for so long, intelligent, educated atheists stammer incoherently behind the guise of vigorous, intellectual argument to present supernatural beliefs as being reasonable. Atheists may be atheists, but they most likely have loved ones who are religious which involves cognitive dissonance of a particularly poignant kind.

  11. Jerry, you need to read this book: The Logic of Scientific Discovery. And I mean that as just a friendly invitation to read some philosophy of science that is actually relevant to scientists.

    One salient bit from Popper’s thought is the consistent application of the logical fact that nothing can be absolutely proven; everything that uses logic depends on certain premises and assumed facts and can be proven—or true, for that matter—only relative to those premises and assumptions.

    Here is an extended quote by the logician Mark Notturno (from Science and the Open Society) making that very point:

    Most people think that the purpose of an argument is to justify its conclusion — and to thereby establish its certainty — and that the problem with inductive arguments is that they fail to establish their conclusions with objective certainty since their conclusions may be false even if all of their premises are true. But this entirely confuses the issue, and it has even enabled inductivists to take the high ground in the debate, arguing that objective certainty is an impossible dream, and that inductive arguments are not, as a consequence, at fault for failing to achieve it.

    But if the uncertainty of their conclusions were the problem with inductive arguments, then we would also have a similar problem with deductive arguments. For the premises of a deductive argument may be false. And the conclusion of a deductive argument may be false as well.

    Contrary to what most people think, logical arguments cannot establish the truth, let alone the certainty, of their con­clusions. And so contrary to what most people think, the problem with inductive arguments has nothing to do with the uncertainty of their conclusions.

    The best that a logical argument can do is test the truth of a statement. But it can do this only by showing that its falsity is inconsistent with the truth of other statements that can only be tested and never proved. Our so-called ‘proof’ methods are really techniques for testing consistency. And the demonstration that a ‘conclusion’ follows from a ‘premise’ shows only that the falsity of the ‘conclusion’ is inconsistent with the truth of the ‘premise.’

    That is all that is involved.

    But so long as we regard contradictions as unacceptable, it is really quite a lot.

    The inconsistency that marks a valid deductive argument — the inconsistency, that is, between the truth of is premises and the falsity of its conclusion — cannot force us to accept the truth of any belief. But it can force us, if we want to avoid contradicting ourselves, to reexamine our beliefs, and to choose between the truth of some beliefs and the falsity of others — because the falsity of the conclusion of a valid argument is inconsistent with the truth of its premises. …

    And this is just another way of saying that what we call a proof actually presents us with the choice between accepting its conclusion and rejeting its premises. …

    We construct logical arguments in order to persuade others of our beliefs. But the best we can do is to clarify a choice that they have to make. Inductive arguments, however, cannot even do this.

    1. I’d say the way I’d be really convinced of the truth of something is it could make predictions. It’s how we know a whole bunch of stuff about the age of the universe, how airplanes fly, and how my controlled processes are going to behave.

    2. Scientists also attempt to confirm propsitions and theories: negative rationalism is insufficient. Consequently, Popper’s philosophy of science, while very valuable, and historically important, is incomplete.

      1. Except that there is no logical way to confirm a universal theory using finite amounts of evidence. In logic, you can only confirm strictly existential statements, which are equivalent to the negation of a stricty universal statement. In science, theories have the form of strictly universal statements, hence they cannot be confirmed but falsified.

        You may be right in terms of what some scientists actually do, i.e. in terms of a description of scientific practice. But that, of course, is irrelevant to Popper’s philosophy, which proposed a logical system of how knowledge advances, not a description of every aspect of what scientists do every day. Which can easily be deduced from the title of his main contribution to that field, The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

        You might even say that Popper’s main point is: you may think that what you’re doing is induction (confirming things), but either a) it actually isn’t or b) it doesn’t—and couldn’t—work.

        1. From the point of view of logic, that’s correct. But one can amplify one’s confirmation (or reduce it): it isn’t as if “confirmed 100%” and “confirmed not at all” are the only alterantives.

          As for induction, that’s too equivocal. What I would say goes on is something like abduction or inference to the best explanation.

          But that aside, negative rationalism does not explain the *success* when people do attempt to confirm; even Popper tried to do this with his theory of verisimilitude (and failed, but that doesn’t mean the idea is unreasonable).

  12. If someone were to assert that there is an elephant on the quad, then the failure to observe an elephant there would be good reason to think that there is no elephant there. (Moreland and Craig, from Wikipedia).

    A god that controls every aspect of the world we live in is a substantial elephant.

  13. I’m a tad surprised a lawyer is making such a silly argument and such a misrepresentation of atheism.

    Scenario: the concept called “God” is charged (in absentia, of course) with Existence in the First Degree.

    The prosecution, on whom the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt lies, provides no positive evidence for this existence, instead lots of intellectual-sounding arguments and lots of frequently conflicting and contradictory anecdotes from witnesses to God’s alleged actions and alleged qualities.

    The defence, on whom lies the task not of providing comprehensive evidence of God’s innocence but of pointing out flaws and inconsistencies in the case for the prosecution, demonstrates that the prosecution has not met its burden and that doubt of God’s culpability is not just reasonable, but nearly unavoidable.

    The jury returns from deliberations almost immediately, having been instructed to concentrate on what evidence has been provided. Having seen nothing from the prosecution but fractious hearsay, theological waffle and appeals to emotion, they unanimously declare God not guilty of existence. Were he present in the courtroom or anywhere else, God would be free to go with the blessing of the Court.

    The prosecution is urged to be more thorough in future and not to waste the Court’s time or public funds on such flimsy cases.

    Disclaimer: IANAL.

    1. Yes, I think the courtroom analogy is a good one.

      Would a theist standing trial for a murder she didn’t commit be content to accept a conviction based on the kind of evidence she apparently sees nothing wrong with when it comes to god?

      I don’t think so.

  14. Given the stuff I see on the web, and assuming that we’re grading on the curve, I’d have to give Prof. Cole at least a B — he’s solidly above average, even though he messed a few things up.

  15. The only scientifically pure position would be a feeble agnosticism.

    Such baloney. How difficult is it to understand that knowledge claims about God have the same epistemological status as knowledge claims about leprechauns?

    You can insist that only feeble agnosticism is warranted in both cases. Or you can say that a “normal” amount of seeking and not finding allows us to make reasonably solid knowledge claims in both cases. But saying ‘feeble agnosticism’ for God and ‘I know they don’t exist’ for leprechauns is nothing other than rank exceptionalism.

    1. The trouble is that leprechauns are a lot better developed conceptually than “God”.

      Someone with average or greater artistic ability (I’m out) could draw a picture of a leprechaun, show it around without saying what it’s supposed to be, and most people in the West could probably tell you. Conversely, “God” (Judeo-Xian edition) is such an incoherent concept of a “thing” that no one can even imagine it, let alone draw it. Unicorns and leprechauns can be imagined, even though they cannot be found. God cannot even be imagined.

      I feel awkward denying the existence of Bliffernux, Cicivgtop and God, because I have no idea what it is that might exist for me to deny. How would I go about looking for any of these?

      I’m an atheist (lacking belief in anything I call “God”)and a hard-core agnostic because I also don’t know what theists are talking about when they speak of “God” and I’m convinced that they don’t know either. God talk (~theology) is mostly meaningless blather. Nothing feeble about that, IMO.

      1. As far as the concepts go, I’m with you. God as a concept is very nearly totally undefined.

        But I’ll bet you could show people a picture of, say, the Sistine Chapel, or even a drawing of a large, bearded, robed man you drew yourself and they’d identify it as “god”.

        (Which only goes to support Jerry as he fights this recent trend of claiming that version of god is a strawman)

        1. I would argue that it is overdefined: believers don’t even share with the tradition they claim to follow. So there are too many god concepts floating around. Fortunately, however, I think one can divide them into classes. But before arguing one has to find out what exactly your opponent defends – and that might include two or more notions.

  16. “Atheism, including my own, requires an affirmative (scientifically unprovable) claim that no god(s) exist(s).”

    Bullshit. The only god that can’t be shown not to exist is vague one that has no distinguishing features. That’s where all theists end up when confronted by their ridiculous myths.

  17. Late to the party, I see.

    We’ve known since Epicurus — centuries before the invention of Christianity — that there are no powerful beings with humanity’s best interests at heart. The overwhelming evidentiary evidence of this case can be trivially and independently confirmed simply by noting every time that something bad happens and Jesus didn’t even bother to call 9-1-1.

    We also know that the theological gods are self-contained oxymorons. There is no more a “most powerful power” than there is a “biggest number,” and for the same reasons. Attempts to define divine power as infinite are, first, a category error; second, they’re no more coherent. “All but God can prove this sentence true.” We’ve known since Godel and Turing that the idea of ultimate all-encompassing anything is incoherent — a married bachelor.

    And, thanks to the crew at the LHC, we now know that the Standard Model is complete and that there’s no possibility (within the very, very small error bars of their measurements) of other ways for matter and minds to work than what we’re already well familiar with. Sure, there’s still lots to learn…but, only at even more distant scales. And, just as Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics both reduce to Newtonian Mechanics at human scales, so, too, will anything new reduce to Quantum or Relativistic Mechanics at their appropriate scales, and thence in turn to Newtonian Mechanics.

    So, yeah. There are no gods, and one should be as certain of the fact as one is that there are no married bachelors and that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning. If you still think you need to put an asterisk on that sort of thing…well, frankly, you’re paranoid, and not in an healthy way.

    Either that, or you’re trying to not offend the little people, which is actually more offensive than just being honest with them. They might not like the truth, and they might not even accept it. But, believe me, they can handle it, and they have the right not to be insulted by being treated as incompetent children.



  18. I think we can prove a negative if we can show that the opposite would not be compatible with what we know about the world, such as the laws of physics.

  19. Just to allay some commentators’ concerns, I don’t actually practice law. I am merely a professor, who does interdisciplinary law and social science research. Part of what I’ve learned from social science over the years is (1) not to read too much into a single blog post, and (2) not to take myself too seriously. I’ll take my C+ from Prof. Coyne and just hope I can raise my GPA in other blog posts. Happy New Year to all. Dan

    1. Welcome Dan

      Do you like Morecambe & Wise [since you’re into Arsenal FC]?

      Did you find WEIT because of your Polish connections?

  20. I think we need stop using the short hand “You can’t prove a negative”. It is easy to prove a negative. It is impossible to improve an *unrestricted* negative.

    I can prove there are no black swans in my house. Just look everywhere in my house big enough for a black swan. I can’t prove that there are no black swans anywhere in the universe because I can’t search the entire universe.

    “You can’t prove a negative”

    “Can you prove that?”

    1. What do you mean with an “unrestricted negative”?

      We can prove universal negatives, such as that no signal goes faster than the universal speed limit, and that this applies everywhere and everywhen. Isn’t that “unrestricted”?

      1. Seems to me that you can prove that only locally. We, reasonably, infer that such a prohibition applies to the rest of the universe, but I don’t know that we can prove it.

        1. In conventional logic, negative and positive predicates are dual: you can always put X := not Y.

          And one can prove either to be self-contradictory or in contradiction to other accepted axioms (for example, when doing proofs by reductio to show lack of mathematical existence). In principle, one might be able to do this with god concepts sometimes. (I think one can, but this is contentious.)

          1. It’s only contentious because the theists don’t wish to admit their blatant self-delusion and special pleading.

            “All but God can prove this sentence true.” That right there knocks out all omnipotent gods, and anything less is decidedly parochial.



  21. I think Cole gets a “B”. Since I’ve never seen an argument for God that isn’t nonsense, his nonsensical arguments for God seem to be no more nonsensical than the rest. Who is to say his arguments aren’t the “best” of a bad lot?

  22. Getting to grips with Codswallop

    ‘Musical Beef’ (letter 15) dared challenge my definition of ‘Codswallop’ It is a lovely old English word signifying large quantities of detritus. Codswallop, with its implication of ‘large amounts of ordure’ is more polite and preferable to bullshit! as a rejoinder to religious fantasy.
    I believed it to come from a specific origin, but Musical beef dared to challenge my (god-given) supremacy, so I answer back with this…

    My mother, born 1902, was a grand-daughter of Scandinavian trawlermen working out of Grimsby on the English East Coast. She used the word often, and usually with the understanding of a large quantity of stuff to be thrown. She indicated, when I was a child, that although her grandparents and uncles were after herring, they would occasionally catch cod, fish commonly a yard long. In gutting herring you could throw the guts across the room into a bucket with one hand. But cod yielded many pounds of guts which you had to gather into a pannier and take topside to throw overboard. It was a special nuisance. It occurs to me that the word ‘wallop’ may be a corruption of an old Scandinavian word. Perhaps both Jesper and Pedersen, those Scandinavian brothers who adorn this site, could enlighten us? : )

    Musical Beef gave a link to a dodgy story concerning a bottle-manufacturer called Codd, but that story has little going for it. I think it to be codswallop.

    1. I’m not J&P, but I had no notion of what “wallop” could be. Looking in the dictionary, the meaning if not its etymology became clear:

      “vb, n
      9. (Horse Training, Riding & Manège) an obsolete word for gallop

      [C14: from Old Northern French waloper to gallop, from Old French galoper, of unknown origin]”

      [ ]

      Turns out it is a corruption of sorts, an imitation:

      “late 14c., “to gallop,” possibly from Old North French *waloper (13c.), probably from Frankish *walalaupan “to run well” (cf. Old High German wela “well” and Old Low Franconian loupon “to run, leap”). The meaning “to thrash” (1820) and the noun meaning “heavy blow” (1823) may be separate developments, of imitative origin. Related: Walloped; walloping.”

      [ ]

      Seems I’ve been taken on quite a “wallop”, but sometimes you need to saddle up to get anywhere worthwhile!

      On “loupon”: I remembered that “le loup” is french for “the wolf”, and so says Google Translate.

    2. OED says
      “It is often suggested that this word is the genitive of the name of Hiram Codd (1838–87), British soft drinks manufacturer, who patented several designs for mineral water bottles in the 1870s + wallop n. (see sense 4c at that entry), and that it was originally used by beer drinkers as a derogatory term for soft drink. However, no evidence has been found for early use of the word in this sense, and derivation from the surname is not supported by early spellings.”

      Their earliest example of use is 1959, which Google Ngrams concurs with (one earlier false positive).

      But 1831: “Pot-walloping is universal suffrage run mad” 😉

  23. [Reading the thread:]

    Happy Continuation [as we say in Sweden], Prof. Cole!

    The only scientifically pure position would be a feeble agnosticism. Atheism, including my own, requires an affirmative (scientifically unprovable) claim that no god(s) exist(s).

    Smell test:

    ‘The only scientifically pure position would be a feeble agnosticism. A-Nessie-ism, including my own, requires an affirmative (scientifically unprovable) claim that no Nessie(s) exist(s).’

    Phew! It stinks!

    And anyway, what is a “(scientifically) pure position”? I prefer to look at the observational evidence with empirical methods, whether said evidence and/or methods are pure or noisy. It is the best we have, and it is enough to construct observatories that are observing the spawning of a universe or a fundamental particle.


    That magic such as astrology, creationism or homeopathy do not exist is an old observation, which has been verily tested.

    Likewise, physicalism is an old theory [well, a few years; I don’t know its history as of yet, and it segues into “materialism”], that has undergone very many tests.

    I note that today these latter tests have excluded the gaps for astrology, creationism and homeopathy. E.g. there is a universal speed limit so no instantaneous astrology action, there is inflation respectively atoms so putative creationism and homeopathy are diluted into impotency straight off the bat.

    Nature is a-magic, making skeptics “a-theist” by default. So, why would skeptics care about theologies of “gods” and “agnosticism”? And what connection are we supposed to draw between the evidence and such notions, beyond the default of “there are no such things”*?

    As Jerry says, what evidence does Cole have that warrants this!?

    * Of course, people will claim that there are a social notion of “agnosticism”. But that has nothing to do with what the evidence say or doesn’t say. It is a phony “position”.

    1. Ah, it hits me that the standard debunking of astrology puts all 3 of the large “Crazy Ones” into the same basket. Gravity means the (gravitational) influence of distant stars are diluted into impotency as well. Nice, I have to remember that analogy.

      To compare on my scale of crazy (dilution), astrology will be on the order of 10^10 dilution when comparing the influence of typical family members vs typical Milky Way star members, unless I’m mistaken.

      This unit, which is mine, places them as:

      astrology @ 10^10 << homeopathy @ 10^60 << creationism @ 10^150 units of crazy.

    2. Oh, and just to get the feel of the range here, creationism as applied to biology is the craziest of them all as they blow the Theobald bound on relative likelihood of universal common ancestry of > 10^2000.

      Taking their known ranges then, assuming astrology is pretty much ranged by the single figure:

      astrology @ 10^10 << homeopathy @ 10^60 – 10^400 << creationism @ 10^150 – 10^2000 crazy.

      Oy vey!

  24. As we get to understand religious belief in all its crazy perfidy, we are seeing that the Sam Harris advice, -that we expose religion to our incredulity, – does indeed work. I detect a new sensitivity among the more thoughtful Apologists. They are afraid of ridicule. And they are retreating along a broad line; from their inability to combat Evolution in schools, to abandoning the claim that “80% of ‘Sintists’ (sic) no longer believe in ‘Evilution’”; to reducing their gods to abstract impossibles; to retreating when stung over ‘god of the gaps’ arguments, as to be found in ‘Darwin’s Doubt’. But there is more to be done to get religion out of public, educational and political life, and to oblige religion to stay within church walls.

    One new object of our attention could be religious journalists, who have no reservation in repeatedly using tried and oft-refuted lies upon an unsuspecting public. Another group are the ‘jovial atheists’ who think it a good idea to allow some leakage of religion into intellectual discourse, on the grounds that it is a tradition; or that it is harmless and well-intentioned; or, worst of all, that it represents true and honest beliefs in some folks. And the many uneducated pastors who put out a parody of evolution to win-over schoolkids? And what about the hucksters calling themselves New Apologists, who swan around bible-colleges with pockets full of gods, and tease them into existence with carefully worded deception?

    Time for some scorn upon the whole idea of a bible-college on the grounds that they are the modern version of monasteries, with high walls and enclosed gardens, the better to keep away intrusions of reality into the cult? And we should be more critical of televangelists, especially those demanding ‘seed-money’ for half-promised heavenly rewards.
    The good news, and the hope, is from our experience in France. It is Sunday, today. Twenty years ago, every French radio station and most tv channels carried hours of Catholic services with distant grumbling priests, and lots of smoke. It is nearly all gone. I surveyed the channels with a disappointment at not finding any (to study) this morning. My French children are such atheists that they think me soft in the head for listening to Choral Evensong, or going to see religious paintings in Florence once a year. One day, great America, all this shall be yours!

  25. I think that, as already alluded to, the gods exist / gods do not exist discussion is fairly fruitless, even pointless, due to the lack of agreed definition of what a god is.

    A better question would (IMHO) be: is the existence of religion X better explained by (a) the existence of, and contact with, gods A, B, C… or by (b) people making stories up.

    Given the abundant evidence for (b) – certainly in the case of Christianity, Mormonism, Scientology and AFAIK for the other religions as well – there is no need to fall back on “a feeble agnosticism” or even to have debates about proving a negative.

  26. “…the burden of proof should rest on those who would posit the ontological existence of beings (natural or supernatural) about which we have no data. This goes for the mind (as opposed to the brain) and the soul, as well as the god(s).*”

    I agree there’s no data supporting the existence of the soul, but the mind? Each and every one of us has direct, first-person evidence for the mind’s existence. If we didn’t have minds, we couldn’t be aware of the evidence for or against anything else.

    Because I know someone is bound to misinterpret the above, let me be clear that I’m not claiming the mind is in any way magical. Rather, the mind is experiential. It exists as a matter of subjective experience, even if that experience ultimately correlates with and depends on physical processes occuring in the brain.

    1. Well, is there digestion? Yes, but it isn’t a thing. It is a process (or several): similarly, brains mind, they don’t *have* a mind (like one would have a boot or a cloth rag).

      1. Yes, there is. Just because digestion is a process (or a collection of processes) doesn’t make it not real. So the mind (defined as what the brain does) is real.

        However, the word “mind” is also used to refer to consciousness – which may very well correlate to (or be produced by) certain processes in the brain. But at the level of experience, consciousness is the condition in which all subjective phenomena (thoughts, feelings, sensations) arise. It is the state of being aware. It does not seem to be a simple object or a process – but its existence is empirically undeniable.

        To confuse the mind with such puerile concepts as that of the soul is a mistake.

  27. Law Professor COLE said: “By the way, the oft-made argument that it is impossible to prove a negative is inaccurate. In fact, it would not require a trained scientist to prove quite easily that I have not buttered my toast this morning simply by examining the toast just before its consumption.”

    I think Jerry is right in agreeing with what the law professor said here.

    But I also think there are two kinds of “proof of a negative”:

    (1) Proof of a LOCAL negative — what’s NOT existential on this piece of toast, or in this room, or in this house, or in this Loch (Ness), or on this continent, or on this planet (though this last would challenge in-practice sure-fire searches), or in orbit somewhere between Earth and Mars (thinking Russell’s Teapot or similar tiny such orbitally drifting in GREAT vastness, which would VERY SEVERELY challenge in-practice searches).

    (2) Proof of a UNIVERSAL negative — what is not existential anywhere within the entire natural UNIVERSE and/or outside of the natural universe in a supernatural realm (this is proof of non-existence that is not reasonably expected EVEN IN PRINCIPLE, especially respecting a supernatural creator God or god or gods of some sort or other, and most especially if He, She, it or they were determined that His, Her, its or their existence not be objectively demonstrable).

    And so, I think that while it is possible (in principle, whether or not yet in practice) to prove a LOCAL negative, I do not understand how it is possible (even in principle, let along in practice) to prove a UNIVERSAL negative.

    Granted, my feeble thinking on this is fallible and could be wrong (and if my expressed thinking IS wrong, I would greatly appreciate help learning where I am going wrong, THANKS in advance!).

    Of course, even though a present absence of evidence is not proof of a UNIVERSAL negative, is surely is ample evidence for presently being profoundly skeptical of the truth of a claim of universal presence justifying one’s presently withholding from believing a claim of the existence of a supernatural creator God of any description.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    I confess I have not had time to read all comments yet (but I will at some point), and so if someone has already made the point I just tried to make, OR if someone here has already REFUTED my point, then: Never Mind!

    1. For a “universal” negative, try, “married bachelor.” Or, a place north of the North Pole. Or, the largest prime number.

      In neither case do you need even bother looking; the concept itself is incoherent.

      Omnipotence and omniscience are both incoherent self-contained contradictions. There can no more be a power of all powers than there can be a largest prime number. If one wants, as some theologians are wont, to re-define “omni” to some lesser set (“can do all that is logically possible) then the term becomes even more incoherent, for there are an infinite variety of things one entity can do that no other can, meaning that all entities, no matter how powerful or not, satisfy such definitions. And, for omniscience, Turing long ago demonstrated that there is no general solution to the Halting Problem, even if one throws infinite resources at it.

      For a “local” negative, Epicurus provided overwhelming objective evidence centuries before the invention of Christianity that there are no powerful agents with human interests at heart. Jesus still isn’t calling 9-1-1, even when it would save innocent children from unspeakable horrors perpetrated upon them by his official agents.

      Between those two, plus the confirmation by the LHC team of the Higgs (and thus the Standard Model), there’s really nothing left for any type of god, no matter how you want to define it. At most, there might be some really powerful agents (such as the programmers of the Matrix), but they’re no different from James “The Amazing” Randi setting himself up as a god to some back-bush tribe, except for scale.



      1. Um…thanks for the reply, Ben, but (alas) I am not at all clear on how your reply relates to the comment I made to which it appears you are replying.

        Do you agree, or disagree, that it is possible (in principle and on occasions in practice) to empirically prove/demonstrate a local negative, but NOT possible (even in principle) to empirically prove/demonstrate a universal negative? And if you disagree, how would empirically proving a universal negative work?

        Or perhaps you were not really replying to my comment? (The “system” sent me email saying yours was a response to me.)

        1. My position is that empiricism is irrelevant to the questions of universality at hand here.

          We can empirically rule out, for example, an herd of angry velociraptors stampeding through the room right now. And, if one were to include “ancestral uncle to modern birds” as part of the definition, we can almost rule them out from the entire universe. We cannot, of course, rule out the possibility of virtually-inistinguishable-yet-unrelated animals somewhere else in the universe…or the possibility of some alien zookeepers who sampled terrestrial life several dozens of millions of years ago.

          However, that’s not the sort of entity under question. Rather, we’re discussing gods. Gods are best understood as fictional plot devices, and they all, by design, incorporate some impossibility into their definition: they’re miracle workers, but it’s only a miracle if it’s not actually possible for it to happen.

          As such, all one need do to universally demonstrate the nonexistence of any particular god is to get an accurate definition of it. And since most “sophisticated” theological gods are sprung from the minds of people who’re as uncomfortable and unfamiliar with infinity as Plato and espouse his same long-since-rendered-meaningless “solutions” to those sorts of problems, all you generally have to do is pick something relevant from the past couple centuries of logic and Bob’s your uncle.

          For example, ever since Cantor’s first diagonalization proof, we’ve had all the tools necessary to prove that there are no omnipotent entities — though, to be sure, it wasn’t until Turing and Godel that the full implications of diagonalization really became apparent.



  28. Cole’s points are not valid arguments for the existence of god, but they do identify why it is so difficult to wean people away from believing in god”s existence.
    1. People will cling to their imaginary friends and fight efforts to take them away, and 2. people will not give up a treasured belief simply because there is no evidence for it.

    Religion provides hope to oppose desperation and despair. Atheism will not prevail until desperation and despair are reduced, and human services replace the need for imaginary friends.

  29. I agree with most of what Dr. Coyne writes here, but I take slight umbrage with the last bit in the post where he states “we can’t demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no god..” and again later ” although again I’d avoid the phrase “you can’t prove a negative” in favor of “you can’t be nearly certain of a negative.” This kind of languages confuses. The position of the atheist is one of the null hypothesis – it is not a positive is the null of the hypothesis (or claim) that there is a god. For the null to be rejected there must be evidence in support of the claim, not the other way…it is never the other way – one does not obtain evidence to ‘prove’ or support the null.

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