Random thoughts and views of Tim Young

You Can’t Prove a Universal Negative!…Or can you?

with 2 comments

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m a Bible thump’n evangelical Christian, but I have to point out bad arguments when I see them…even when they come from Christians.  In fact, I think I ought to be harder on Christians then I am non-Christians.  After all, we are supposed to be in possession of the most complete and cogent world view.  So why would we need to propound bad arguments?  So here’s a bad argument that I’ll seen thrown around a bit.  It goes something like this: 

Atheist: God doesn’t exist.

Theist: But you cannot prove a universal negative, so you cannot know that God doesn’t exist.  In order to know that God didn’t exist, you’d have to examine the whole universe.  But you cannot do that so you cannot know that God exist 

My dear Christian brothers and sisters, if you are using this argument, STOP!!  Do not pass go, do not collect $200…  It’s a bad argument.  Why?  Because you can prove a universal negative.  How?  By showing that it’s falsehood involves us in an inconsistency. Here’s an example: 

Universal negative: There are no four-sided circles. 

Now, let’s suppose, for a second that the above sentence were false.  In that case there would be at least one object in the universe that was a four-sided circle.  But how could there be a four-sided circle?  What would it look like exactly?  Try picturing it in your head… Don’t feel bad if you can’t.  In fact you shouldn’t be able to conceive of four-side circle because the concept is contradictory.  By definition circles don’t have sides.  So the existence of a four-sided circle would be inconsistent, hence the above is true. 

Now, in the past atheists have argued that believing in God’s existence is like believing the existence of a four-sided circle.  They argued that God—were He to exist—would be a ‘walking’ contradiction just as our four-sided circle proved to be.  So, for example, atheists argued that God’s omnipotence is contradictory.  You’ve seen the fruits of this argument if you’ve ever been asked the question “Can God create a stone so large he cannot lift it?”  This question shows—or at least it’s supposed to show—that God’s omnipotence is contradictory, thus such a God cannot exist.  Or consider this: 

  1. God is omnipotent, thus He has the power to rid the world of evil.
  2. God is omniscient, thus He knows how to rid the world of evil.
  3. God is omnibenevolent, thus He does not want there to be evil in the world.
  4. There is evil in the world.
  5. Therefore God does not exist 

Again, this is meant to show an inconsistency.  In this case we are told that God’s existence is incompatible with the existence of evil.  Thus either God exists, or evil exist, but not both.  Since we know evil exists, then God cannot exist…or so goes the argument.

 In any case, the point is that atheists have tried to show that God doesn’t exist, and that the whole “you can’t prove a universal negative thing” response simply ignores this fact.


Written by Tim

January 13, 2010 at 11:09 am

2 Responses

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  1. In any case, the point is that atheists have tried to show that God doesn’t exist, and that the whole “you can’t prove a universal negative thing” response simply ignores this fact.

    I’m totally in agreement with the concept that one can not prove a negative, but I think your view of our stance as atheist is a little off.

    Our claim as atheists is not that gods don’t exist. Rather, it is that no claim for the existence of any god has ever been established as valid. The burden of proof is not on atheists – we are not the ones making any claim. All we are doing is responding to the arguments of believers, nothing more. We are certainly not trying to prove that gods don’t exist. As you suggest, that is futile.

    My belief, as opposed to what I think is the state of knowledge about the existence of gods, is indeed that there are no gods. While these two concepts are compatible, I can not say with certainty that there are no gods without violating my posiiton on the state of knowledge. A subtle point, but crucial to understanding atheists.

    However, we can show that certain gods indeed do not exist by testing whether their properties match up with reality. The argument from evil is not an argument against the existence of all gods (as per the previous paragraph). It only shows that the existence of 3-O gods is logically impossible. An evil or indifferent god can exist. This is why the folks at The Atheist Experience always ask a theist what their definition of god is when they call in to the show. With a nebulous god the goalposts can always be moved.

    Shamelessly Atheist

    January 13, 2010 at 11:37 am

  2. Great point about strong and weak atheists; thanks for the clarification. I’m actually well aware that a weak atheist would couch his position in terms of “lacking belief” in God. My point, though, was just to show that there actually are (or at least were) atheists who argue for God’s nonexistence.

    Also, your point about arguments against God only disproving particular conceptions of God (say, the 3-O God), is well taken. But keep in mind that my post was directed at orthodox Christians. When faced with the problem of evil, one legitimate move that will get you out of the problem is denying one of the omni’s. So an Open Theist, for example, will deny that God has knowledge of the future. But in that case we end up with a God that is less than the historic Christian conception of God.

    Maybe it would have been clearer for me to say there are atheist who are strong atheists about the Christian God but weak atheists about other Gods?


    January 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm

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