Sunday, January 01, 2006

The God Hypothesis

It's often claimed that theism is untestable, but that seems to me mistaken. Surely we should expect significant differences between an atheistic universe and one guided by a supreme being that is all-powerful, knowing, and benevolent. Indeed, this is precisely why the problem of evil is such a powerful anti-theistic argument: it rests on the idea that the world is not how we would expect it to be in light of such a being's existence. We would expect God to create the best possible world, which ours does not seem to be. That's one failed prediction for theism, and thus a count against the theory.

The argument from divine silence rests on a similar inference. If the Christian God existed, he would surely let us know this. Perhaps each Sunday he would light up the skies and speak to us in a booming voice, or something along those lines. But of course nothing like this actually occurs. At present, the epistemic situation of many individuals provides them with little or no reason to believe in God. This is not something we should expect to be the case if God really existed. (Indeed, I think it makes traditional Christianity completely ludicrous - see my argument from hell.) Thus we have a second failed prediction for Christianity, and another serious count against the God hypothesis.

Now, it must be granted that these failures do not conclusively falsify theism. But then, I'm not sure that empirical evidence can ever conclusively falsify anything. Suppose I posit the existence of a black hole near our solar system. Others might cast doubt on this by showing how the standard predictions we'd make from this hypothesis fail to match up with our observations of reality. But I could always respond by claiming a measurement failure on their part, effectively denying their observations; or I might suggest that they have misunderstood the nature of black holes, thereby disputing the legitimacy of their predictions; or I might simply say that extraordinary circumstances allow for the possibility of the black hole's existence no matter how unlikely it may seem given our evidence. (Evidence can be misleading; improbable events may still occur.) The same responses are open to the theist. But of course they are unconvincing in either case.

These problems might be avoided by reverting to an extremely weak notion of 'God' as a causally inert being that makes no difference to the universe. As in the case of my positing a causally inert blob that likewise 'is nowhere' and 'does nothing', we surely have no reason to believe in such a pointless entity. Ockham's razor can safely shear it away.

But I'm sure most theists do not conceive of their God in such a useless way. So Ockham's Razor, or complaints about 'unfalsifiability', should not be the atheist's first line of attack. I think much stronger arguments can be made by taking the God hypothesis seriously, i.e. as making testable predictions about the world, and then pointing out how dismally those predictions line up with reality.

39 comments:

  1. I agree with your first two statements; however, I'm not yet convinced that an atheistic universe could even get started. (But that's a different argument for a different time.)

    Maybe in a world where God conclusively revealed to everyone that He exists, many would attempt to be God, to find out how to reason like Him, in order to usurp Him and make Him unnecessary, and maybe many would disregard his revelations and continue living as they please. And maybe that world would be a lot like this world. (Or maybe this world is a lot like that world.) Maybe. But maybe not. Who knows? (That's the point.)

    As an aside, I don't believe in God because God is useful, so I give no mind to one's opinion (including my own) of the usefulness or uselessness of God, in regards to the question of His existence. The best way, in my opinion, to approach the question of the existence of God is to look at the world we observe and what we know about it and then give a best-explanation for that world: How do we best explain the existence of the universe, of reason, of design, of objective morality (if it exists), and so on? Evil should be included in that list as well. (And let us not forget that there are theistic arguments from evil in addition to the atheistic ones.) When we consider all these things—all these things, not just one or two—the existence of God, in my opinion, provides the best explanation. Others disagree.

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  2. Richard wrote:

    "Others might cast doubt on this by showing how the standard predictions we'd make from this hypothesis fail to match up with our observations of reality. But I could always respond by claiming a measurement failure on their part, effectively denying their observations; or I might suggest that they have misunderstood the nature of black holes, thereby disputing the legitimacy of their predictions; or I might simply say that extraordinary circumstances allow for the possibility of the black hole's existence no matter how unlikely it may seem given our evidence. (Evidence can be misleading; improbable events may still occur.) The same responses are open to the theist."

    actually, the theistic argument is like suggesting that there is a black hole within the solar system -- in fact right here on the planet -- but it is of a special nature, one which makes it impossible to see, taste, feel, hear or in any other way detect. essentially, God is like ether.

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  3. hey Don, Jr

    its the theistic explanation of the world that makes no sense to me. for example, how can God speak through the prophets? does he use radiation of some sort (akin to radio waves) to stimulate a special detector in the prophet's brain, and if so: could we detect the waves in some way? is there interference (resulting in prophetic mispronouncements)? or -- how can He hear our prayers, especially silent ones? do we have a broadcasting device in our brains? and if so, can our broadcasts be interfered with? spied upon? and if so, would God know if they are -- and how?

    the most puzzling aspect of theism to me is omniscence. in view of the fact that photons (our source of information about location of electrons) interfere with eletrons when they strike them, and therefore we can only know a particle's position OR its momentum but not both (so called "uncertainty principle"), how can God know everything? what does he use to KNOW where things are? and how come THAT does not interfere with that which it measures?

    just a few little questions about the theistic theory i have... ;-)

    best regards

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  4. Hi Gawain. I understand your point, but how God speaks through prophets or hears our prayers is not a best-explanation for anything. These are all questions one would ask from within a theistic worldview, not from a neutral standpoint. This is exactly the opposite of what I was talking about in my earlier comment. And I wasn't even speaking of the theistic God in my earlier post (I don't think I even mentioned theism or Christianity in that post). I was speaking of God (or a god) in general and how, in my opinion, the existence of God (or a god) best accounts for this world. Your not thinking that the theistic God (or even any type of god) can speak to prophets or hear prayers has no affect on what I said in my earlier post.

    It would be really silly in my opinion if one were to accept God as the best explanation for all the things I talked about in my earlier post and then to deny His existence because one can't fathom how He speaks to prophets. My point is that if one wants to deny the existence of God, the best way to do that would be to argue that He isn't the best explanation for the world, not that His speaking to prophets is inexplicable.

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  5. Hi Donjr! happy new year!

    i am not sure i understand the fine point you are putting on things. an explanation to be even a remotely good one has to be internally consistent AND consistent with what we know of the world. there is a serious inconsistency between a God who acts in the world (by communicating with us, or creating the world, or effecting miracles within it) and what we know about the way the world works. (creation offers similar problems -- how does a will exist without a material medium and how can sheer unmediated will effect, say, a big bang? or anything?). perhaps you are leaning towards a theory of God prposed by Richard elsewhere, which is of an undetectable God who does not interact with the world or us, indeed has no impact on any of it. this theory would be consistent, but unfalsifiable. material for occham's razor, i suppose. i am not sure how you feel about occham's razor?
    best regards

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  6. tried to post before and it seems to have failed anyway the summary is
    1) you disproved certain kinds of gods
    a) it would be od for a god to be a "booming god" because that implies that is the best way for hin to get things done. One would expect the best way would be either
    i) just setting the preconditions of the universe to make what he wanted.
    ii) constant changing to the point whee the universe seemed to have no rules at all.
    2) bad use of ockham's razor - it is a way to simplify things not to disprove other things.

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  7. It seems to me if you are going to raise the "God hypothesis" one must obviously point out that the hypothesis must deal with all the conceptions of God. That's always been the flaw with the problem of evil. It presupposes a particular concept of God (the one incompatible with evils we see) for all God. But even if one disproves this hypothesis of God it doesn't follow logically that one has disproved the God hypothesis proper. Just one particular line of it.

    I think this is why many atheistic arguments against God fail, even on an intuitive level. One is simply left wondering if a strawman isn't being argued against.

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  8. Again, Gawain, I think you are approaching the problem backwards. If you think it impossible that God acts in the world that's fine. But for one to say, "God best explains the existence of the universe, of objective morality, of reason, of design, and so on," and then to say, "But I don't think God could act in the world, therefore God doesn't exist" is just poor reasoning. Thus whether God acts in the world or not is an irrelevant issue in regards to the question of God's existence (where the God in question is not necessarily the theistic God). One should at minimum be a deist in that case. And to shift from deism to atheism simply because one views the God in deism as useless is again poor reasoning. By that logic I should deny the existence of Antarctica.

    The question is what best accounts for the world as it is, that is, for the universe, for morality, for reason, for design, etc. If God is the answer to that question, then God is the answer to that question. One's viewing the theistic God as internally inconsistent is no good reason to deny the existent of God in general.

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  9. genius is right about occham's razor. though, i wasnt disproving the existence of God thereby, only just wondering about possible uses of the theist hypothesis of an impotent, undetectable God with whom we cannot interact. i suppose we do have to weed theories on some basis. unfalisiability would be one. explanatory uselessness would be another.

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  10. hm, don jr, i wonder what makes you think that God is the best explanation of the world? (i tried to suggest to you that most theories of God are incoherent).

    on the other hand you seem to suggest that we should believe in the existence of antlantis because to disbelieve the existence of antarcitca would be foolish. i think the evidence in favor of the existence of antarctica is overwhelming. the evidence in favor of deist explanations is non-existent.

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  11. When one chooses to have faith in god(s), none can reason that individual out of it. My definition of faith is: Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

    I choose that definition because many who have faith resort to "I just have faith" after their logical arguments have been breached. When one chooses not to have an open mind and be willing to question their beliefs in a logical manner that is based on objectivity and evidence, there is no ability to reason with that person.

    Faith and ignorance often go hand in hand. Those are the double edged sword of our current society.

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  12. Gawain, why I believe God is the best explanation is not the issue here. I'm not arguing for the existence of God here. I was just illustrating what I think to be the best method of approach to the question of God's existence. And let's assume, as you say, that most theories of God are incoherent. What's your point? There are a lot of crazy, incoherent theories about how the universe started as well.

    Gawain, you say, "on the other hand you seem to suggest that we should believe in the existence of antlantis because to disbelieve the existence of antarcitca would be foolish." What?! Where did I suggest that? I said it's foolish to disbelieve in something simply because its useless. I said it's poor reasoning for one to be an atheist if one's only reason for being an atheist is that God, if He exists, is useless. That's all. How you got to think I was saying what you stated above is beyond me.

    I'm not arguing specifics here Gawain. You might very well believe that God isn't the best explanation or that there is no evidence for deism. Fine. That's great. I'm not going to argue that point with you. I'm just going to object when you say things that suggest we should not believe in the existence of God simply because He's useless or because we can't fathom how He answers prayers.

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  13. Don, you misunderstand the sense of 'useless' that is being employed here. We commonly call something 'useless' if it makes no salient difference to our present concerns (e.g. Antarctica?). But I'm not talking about that. In my sense, an entity is 'useless' if it makes no difference whatsoever to the universe. These are the sorts of entities that get shorn away by Ockham's razor. It clearly does NOT include Antarctica, since the existence of a gigantic icy continent makes an actual causal difference to the world. Not so for the kind of 'useless' God which doesn't impact upon the universe in any way whatsoever.

    Clark, I'm happy enough to argue against the standard conceptions of God. If someone wants to propose a different "God hypothesis", then they're welcome to do so, and we could consider it independently, on its own merits. But I have no patience for those who would defend theism by playing an indefinite 'bait and switch' game, whereby for any particular atheistic argument they offer the facile response "oh, we can invent some variant of theism which that wouldn't apply to". Let's fix down a particular theistic position and deal with that. I say the considerations mentioned in my main post rule out the most common contenders, at any rate.

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  14. I understand Richard. I think I was not clear in what I was saying. I was saying it is poor reasoning for one to agree that God best explains the world as it is (the existence of the universe, of design, of morality, of reasoning, etc.) and then to subsequently deny His existence simply because he or she thinks God couldn't or doesn't act in the world and thus would be useless, a sort of deistic God. If one thinks God is not the best explanation then that's fine. But to go from deism to atheism simply because it's deism is just poor reasoning.

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  15. While I aplaud the sentiment (i.e. tying things down so they can be debated) we should not forget that "science" (as opposed to theism) plays the bait and switch game also.

    For example If I disproved a random science fact very few people would abandon science as irrelevant even if they accepted my proof of a flaw in their model (they would jsut change the model).

    Thinking that they should is the sort of error creationists make ie "you cant explain the formation of the human eye (lets say) so evolution didnt happen."

    Besides - even if they could prove that it CANNOT HAPPEN in nature you would probably go for the aliens hypothesis over the god one right?

    What is a problem is when you prove two ideas are inconsistant and then you hear them repeating those same two ideas together later.

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  16. I'd second "genius" point. It seems grossly unfair to criticize a particular and take it as entailing much about a generality. This isn't just an issue of theism but of logic in general. That's why we have a fallacy named for this behavior.

    Yes it makes life harder, but it really isn't a bait and switch issue. It's simply a fact of life when falsifying theories.

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  17. "But I have no patience for those who would defend theism by playing an indefinite 'bait and switch' game, whereby for any particular atheistic argument they offer the facile response "oh, we can invent some variant of theism which that wouldn't apply to"."

    How is this 'bait and switch' different than any other hypothesis. I propose some theory, you argue it doesn't work because of X, Y, and Z, I change my theory so it is immune to X, Y, and Z, and so on. Isn't this how philosophy has worked for a very long time now?

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  18. Oh sure, it's fine if you actually do change your theory. I had in mind the sort of theist who just uses the existence of variation as an excuse to ignore atheistic arguments that fail to cover every possible theistic alternative (even if it does refute the particular conception they hold to).

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  19. Richard,

    I would think some of the arguments to be found in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion cast doubt on your central assumption:

    "Surely we should expect significant differences between an atheistic universe and one guided by a supreme being..."

    Many of the arguments the character Philo raises against the argument from design also cast doubt on the reliability of such expectations. Having only the one universe makes for a rather small sample size from which to generalize about what theistic vs nontheistic universes are like.

    You offer two examples of arguments that you suggest work as kinds of empirical tests of the god hypothesis: 1) the argument from divine silence and 2) the problem of evil.

    As for the first, I wonder what possible basis we would have for thinking that an all powerful (etc) god would make itself known in such ways. It's certainly not based on what we know from our experience with other all powerful beings, and it doesn't follow in any obvious ways from the offered definition of god. (All-self-exhibiting would be an additional feature).

    The problem of evil has more to be said for it, but it seems to have a special status because of its conceptual connection to the definition. There is certainly an empirical element to the argument ('there is evil in the world'), but even that turns a great deal on how 'evil' is understood.

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  20. The divine silence argument targets specific conceptions of God as a being that wants us to worship / believe in him. Clearly it would be unreasonable for such a being to refrain from giving us any indication that he exists. And it would be downright immoral of him to punish us for our subsequent (reasonable) disbelief. (That is the point made in my linked "argument from Hell".)

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  21. hello donjr!
    i suspect you are not discussing specifics because this is where every theory of God runs into trouble!
    best regards
    tom

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  22. > The divine silence argument targets specific conceptions of God as a being that wants us to worship / believe in him.

    I dont think it works.. but explaining might be a bit hard...
    And I might upset some theists but lets wander down the path (note we are assuming some degre of benevolence, omnicience and omnipotence)...

    FIRST

    1) The god could also "implant beief in him in our heads (actualy thisis to an extent the case but he could do it so you CAN'T disbelieve)
    2) Or he could boom out every evening "I'm here" (also makes it damn hard not to believe)
    3) Or he could say nothing

    If 2 then why not 1? 2 seems an odd method of achieving what you want anyway. I suggest you either use 1 or 3.

    SECOND

    An omniscient god knows the outcome before the test. So it is more like you are being weighed and measured rather than tested from that perspective. So that changes the perspective on "unreasonable".

    A god could then punish you without being immoral. The problem is that a human would normally need to see somthing in your actions (like you killing someone or whatever) but a god doesnt need an action as an indicator for a trait - he can see the trait directly.

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  23. Gawain, no offense, but if my not wanting to discuss specifics because (supposedly) "this is where every theory of God runs into trouble!" is all you got out of what I've been saying then that just seems to be a result of selective reading or, at least, comprehension.

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  24. hello donjr!
    well, you are probably right, i must not understand what you are saying. perhaps, in the spirit of charity, you should make it easy for me, then, and tell me: what makes you think that God is the best explanation of anything?
    best regards
    gawain

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  25. I bet (if this progresses) we end up in trouble with the definition of "best"

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  26. Gawain asks me, "What makes you [Don Jr.] think that God is the best explanation of anything?" Whether or not God actually is the best explanation of anything was not what I was getting at. In asking that question it is clear that you are still missing the point of what I have been saying here. Your question is like asking a theist (or a nontheist for that matter) who is merely arguing for a correspondence theory of truth over a coherence theory of truth, "What makes you think that the existence of God corresponds to reality?" That, simply, is just not the issue at hand. (Every point a theist makes isn't arguing for the existence of God.)

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  27. 'We would expect God to create the best possible world, which ours does not seem to be.'
    The God Hypothesis, 1st Jan 2006

    ...and what exactly would be 'the best possible world'? According to whose definition?
    The simple fact that the universe is not 'perfect' does not in any way count as an argument against the existence of, for want of a better term, god.
    If god had created a world where everything worked out just the way us lowly humans wanted it to, where nothing ever went 'wrong', where 'evil' did not exist, - well, what would be the point in that? Where would be the endless opportunities to learn, grow, escape boredom (because in a perfect world that is what we would all be - bored out of our minds)???
    Evil only exists in contrast to it's opposite number, 'good'. Like black and white, one cannot have one without the other. Evil is a concept that is very human, very theological (i.e. religious) in any case, and as such does not have any true existence outside of human society.
    'We would expect god' - such insolent pride! God has no reason to apologise for not creating a universe that caters to the whims and fantasies of your typical upper-class Californian teenager! If this is the best 'evidence' you can come up with for the non-existence of god, well then you had better try much harder next time.

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  28. Pambrus, I discussed that sort of objection in my linked post on the problem of evil. Please read that and respond there if you find the argument lacking. Also, you're an ignorant fool if you think there is no worse suffering in the world than the thwarted "whims and fantasies of your typical upper-class Californian teenager". Shame on you for trivializing the pain and suffering inflicted on sub-"upper class" persons all around the extra-Californian world.

    Don, you might be interested in my post on why supernatural explanations are no explanation at all.

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  29. Richard, thanks for the link to your other blog entry; it was interesting. I added a comment there.

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  30. A similar argument is that if you believe in a god that interacts in any way you would assume that this would show up in statistics. Lottery winners should congregate in strong christian/moslem etc areas.

    Same with hurricanes/wars/health they should cluster according to faithfulness and the correct religion should be obvious.

    The fact that these events are properly random shows that god if he exists does not interact with the world. If he doesn't interact why bother believing in him

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  31. Sorry I haven't relly read it completely, but could I bother referencing to my blog - jpknight.blogspot.com

    But why are people making evil a point for/against a benelovent god? Isn't it a purely anthro-centeric position, to bequeth great value on our suffering? It is not a question of defining 'best', but one of admitting the extremely obvious observation of the subjectivness of suffering/evil (though that does raise points against the a god of objective evil).

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  32. excellent, donjr, by refusing to be pinned down you prevent disproof of your arguments! i would congratulate you except that religious people have used this way of arguing for several millenia now. it's no way to win arguments, but it does work! (see: http://heaventree.blogspot.com/2005/12/jeremiah-vs-tales-of-miletus-or-debate.html).
    best regards!

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  33. Gawain, sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not arguing for the existence of God here. As I've been trying to explain, the focus of my discussion here lies elsewhere.

    Would you be upset with a math teacher, who happens to be a theist, for not arguing for the existence of God in math class? (I hope that's a rhetorical question.)

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  34. One argument for deciding between religions is that maybe god interacts in a very weak sense in such a way that a religion that he favoured should slowly spread over time. this means maybe islam or christianity or possibly budhism.

    > The fact that these events are properly random

    I think you are putting the cart before the horse, I dont think anyone has done this experiment - at least not properly. You may well be right of course - just that I dont see how you could KNOW you are right.

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  35. If someone wants to propose a different "God hypothesis", then they're welcome to do so, and we could consider it independently, on its own merits.

    Ok, I'll posit the God or Higher Power of a 12 step program.

    Studies show that whatever that God or god is, he/she/it/etc. gets better results than a twelve step program without a reliance on a higher power.

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  36. Hello, all. I hope I don't attract too much fire as a) a newbie, b) a non-philosopher, and c) a subject-changer. This is just the closest discussion thread I could find to the subject I wanted to introduce. If there is a better one, I would welcome directions to it.
    OK: that said, it seems to me that no one ever talks about the language that theists use (and that non- or a-theists use in talking back to them). To wit: take a (fundamentalist) christian proposition repeated from scripture like "god created the world in six days." The most important words in that sentence - "god" and "created" - recede into swamps of non-meaning. Who or what is god? If he is defined by his actions, well, what exactly did he do in creating the world? How did he do it? The answer is beyond our comprehension, presumably. We end up with the proposition "a being I cannot conceive did something I cannot comprehend at some point in the past I'm not sure of." Ah. Glad we cleared THAT up.
    My larger point is this; if we engage theists in arguments referring to entities and events that no one claims to understand, how is this rational discourse? It ends up being more like two seagulls squawking at one another on the beach than it does "discourse" or "argument."

    Again, if I am missing any obvious points or should post somewhere else, let me know. Thanks!

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  37. Hi John, I've started a new Open Thread for you, so hopefully others will respond to your argument over there.

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  38. I agree that theism is testable through experience and reason, but I do not think it is a scientific hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis uses experimentation and observation to test process, not being. Thus, I can scientifically test the boiling point of water and even its constituents (since this is a process itself, the combination of hydrogen and oxygen), but I cannot scientifically test if I really am myself, if God exists or what it is like to be a cow. Similarly, science can tell us nothing about reason and logic.

    On to your arguments against theism, or Christianity in particular. I agree, that the problem of evil is a difficult issue. But I think there are sufficient philosophical and theological answers to satisfactorily deal with it.

    In terms of divine silence, I think you have presented the issue incorrectly. The inference: "If God exists, He will certainly let us know" is based on an important assumption. It is this: "If God exists, He will certainly let us know in a way which I find acceptable". I find this highly presumptious. It is like saying: "If my dog exists, I should expect it to bark to me every five minutes".

    Rather, the argument from divine silence should run: "If God exists, we should expect a certain amount of evidence for His existence". If we do have a certain amount of evidence for His existence - and I contend we do, such as: the origin of the universe, objective morality, reason, the incarnation through Christ, etc. - then I suggest we don't have a viable argument from silence.

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  39. I know I am rather late to this game, but I would like to point out that negatives can be proven and are proven (definitively) all the time. One of the easiest ones to disprove: "There is no highest prime."

    1. For there to be a "highest" prime, there must be a finite set of primes.
    2. It is proven that there is an infinite set of primes.
    3. Therefore a highest prime cannot exist.

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