November 2007

Hello to the site host and his dedicated readers. I have taken an interest in your site and wanted to contribute some. After browsing through some of your posts and other “atheist” blogs (you’ll understand the quotations later), I thought it may be appropriate to help define the terms by which many of these debates, conversations, honest questions are being posed. Many individuals claiming to be atheists may want a little primer in the very definition of the word. It may seem elementary at first, but stay with me.

The word Atheism is composed of the Greek words Alpha, meaning “the negative” and Theos, meaning “God, or deity”. The very word means “there is no god”. It is not saying “I do not think there is a god”, nor is it saying “I do not believe there is a god”. It is affirming the non-existence of God. It affirms a negative. A basic course in philosophy will tell you this is a logical contradiction. How can you affirm a negative in the absolute? It would be like me saying, “there is no white stone with black spots anywhere in all the entire universe”. I would need infinite wisdom of the universe to prove this. To affirm an absolute negative is self defeating, as it means you are saying “I have infinite knowledge to say to you “there is no one with infinite knowledge”. A little silly, eh?

Now, as the well respected apologist Ravi Zacharias points out, even the die-hard philosopher Bertrand Russell recognized this and did a quick little switch to agnosticism (where all you have to prove is you don’t know ;) . I Recognize it is also foolish for me to say “I know you cannot know”, b/c that is also self defeating. But if you are willing to honestly study the evidence and wrestle with the philosophical issues, and then say, upon doing so say “I don’t believe it is really possible to know with certainty that there is a god”, then that is a kind of stance worth respecting and honoring. Different than saying “you know” (thus, mislabeling yourself as an atheist).

My point in raising this issue is this:

Consider two educators from Cambridge University:

Dr John Polkinghorn, who is considered the worlds greatest quantum physicist and Stephen Hawking, who holds the Lucasion chair of mathematics (the famous position once filled by Sir Isaac Newton), are in two different camps. Polkinghorn is a committed theist, while Hawking is an agnostic. There is obviously intellectual material on both sides in order for two brilliant men to come to 2 different conclusions. So for anyone to say that he has avowed or disavowed it, purely for intellectual reasons, betrays a prejudice and lack of understanding on the subject.

My personal belief is that there is no one single argument that is 100% irrefutable by either side, and at some point you will need to make a leap of faith in what you believe. Do you not owe it to yourself to seek the truth as best you can? I hope this helps.

Thanks for reading, and hopefully we can converse further.

I am a great believer in defining terms, so I welcome your correspondence. However, I believe you are incorrect on a number of points.

When defining atheism, you say that “a” means “the negative” and “theos” means “deity,” combining to mean “there is no god”. Rather, I’d say it means something more akin to “without god” (and the dictionaries I just checked back me up on this). Looking at this prefix used in other contexts, I assume that you would not argue that someone who is “amoral” does not believe that morality exists, or that someone who is “atypical” does not believe that anyone is typical. And one can certainly be “without god” without stating definitely that no deities exist, just as one can say there is no proof of intelligent life in other solar systems without saying that there is definitely no other intelligent life out there.

But when you get right down to it, this is really not relevant. What is relevant is how the word is used in modern English, and atheist is commonly used to mean “someone who is without god”. It is also — and perhaps even more commonly — used to mean “someone who believes there is no god,” but both definitions are in use. Again, a variety of dictionaries back me up on this, as does quite a bit of atheist literature.

Some people call atheists who state that there definitely are no deities “strong” atheists, and atheists such as myself “weak” atheists. I don’t personally care for those terms, but they are in use.

I don’t know that, as you say, a basic course in philosophy would tell me that affirming a negative is a logical contradiction. There are many negatives that can be affirmed (e.g., “I am not you”). However, I understand the point you are trying to make — one cannot prove that there are no deities. I agree with that statement, although I would note that it may be possible to prove that certain types of deities (that is, deities with certain qualities) are possible to disprove.

I’m going to skip over the paragraph about Polkinghorn and Hawking, as I consider it an irrelevant appeal to authority.

You are right that people owe it to themselves to seek the truth as best they can. I’d probably disagree that there is not 100% irrefutable argument on either side of the discussion of whether or not God exists — for example, I believe that the argument from personal revelation for the existence of God is irrefutable, although it is not compelling to those who did not receive the revelation. I also would say that my statement “I am not convinced any deities exist” is 100% irrefutable. I would agree that I have not seen a compelling argument for the nonexistence of all deities, but such an argument may be possible if it can be shown that there is something logically contradictory about deities as a concept.

I am not an agnostic. I do not believe that it is, in principle, impossible to prove that some kind of god exists. (We can discuss possible proofs, if you like.) However, I have seen no proof for the existence of a deity that I find compelling, therefore I am without any deities, therefore I am an atheist. To say that I am an agnostic would be misstating my position.

Posted on November 11, 2007 at 12:28 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Agnosticism, Anti-atheist

One Response

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  1. Written by crickets
    on September 29, 2010 at 10:47 am
    Reply · Permalink

    I heard a terrific response to the ‘cant prove a negative’ argument some time ago. I can’t find the article so I’ll try to provide a synopsis.

    imagine any mundane positive claim. for instance, “my car is parked right outside”. at first glance, it would seem that this is a supportable claim.

    however, what if you were told that in reality, your car wasn’t parked outside… that it is impossible to prove that the car is parked outside, because an advanced being may exist which is merely maintaining the illusion that your car is parked there. projecting it’s holograms, implanting false memories, generally setting everyone up to beleive that the car is parked, right outside. or perhaps that you are merely suffering from a persistent delusion that you own a car.

    this hypothetical being or condition belongs to a set that we’ll call ‘nullifiers’ because they exist to negate or nullify any statement you would use to support a positive existence claim. although the likelyhood of such a being or condition existing is vanishingly small, it would be impossible to ‘prove’ it doesn’t exist.

    I wish I could go to the depths that the original article did, but to conclude… because every existence claim implies the non-existence of a nullifier, positive and negitive existential claims are on the same epistemological footing. we can only assign a probability that a given statement is true.

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