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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Disproving the Existence of God

In a New York Times article entitled "Darwin's God" (March 4, 2007) Robin Marantz Henig reviews the work of several current scientists, most notably Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, as they seek to explain why spiritual beliefs have been and remain so prevalent in the lives of us humans. Atran and other confirmed atheists find that, on the face of them, religious beliefs and practices are simply irrational. These men of science have taken it upon themselves to find the scientific groundings of what they believe to be little or nothing more than a collective irrationality.

The science they call upon is powerful. Atran's research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Employing standard yet elegant research, he presents much verifiable and convincing evidence from those fields which demonstrates quite clearly a human propensity for believing in an all-powerful and all-knowing god, an afterlife, a divine hand at work in the lives of humans, and other beliefs characteristic of religions. Atran's work aligns with that of Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, another best-selling author Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote Breaking the Spell. These and still other scientific atheists, armed as they are with the force of sciences which have transfigured the modern planet, should provide a withering deconstruction of everything spiritual and leave all religion in smithereens and nothing more than scattered museum relics of quaint and by-gone days. But they fail.

In academic logic, a discipline which has been practiced by thousands of scholars for more than two thousand years— since Aristotle— it is accepted wisdom that, absent a mutually exclusive positive statement, a negative statement is impossible to prove. That is to say, it's impossible to prove a statement that something doesn't exist unless you can prove some other statement which precludes its existence. For example, when I was a young kid, I worked with an old guy who, growing up on a farm out in the country, didn't believe that the astronauts really went to and walked on the moon. His alternate explanation of what he saw of it on television was that the entire moon trip was actually done in a Hollywood studio. His logical fallacy was that the two premises aren't mutually exclusive. That is, even if it were proven true that what we all saw of the moon landing and moon walk were done in a Hollywood studio, it's still possible that the astronauts did indeed go to the moon. Both events could have happened. Both statements could be true. They aren't mutually exclusive statements. So even if the old guy were able to prove that the footage of the astronauts on the moon was made in a Hollywood studio, it still wouldn't logically disprove that astronauts went to the moon, that the trip to the moon didn't exist.

The small but fatal flaw in the scientific atheists' thesis— indeed, their entire endeavor— is, likewise, that, regardless of the number and quality of the facts cited, there's no logical argument to prove a thing's non-existence. Everything they argue may very well be true. A belief in a spiritual entity might indeed favor a group's evolutionary survival. An overly safe or moral attitude toward the world and others brought about religious convictions might well have been bred into humans by evolution. For those facing death and for their loved ones a belief in an afterlife could certainly provide emotional comfort and so be a plausible reaction of the human psyche. But all such psychological, anthropological, and cultural explanations woven together into a seamless whole still cannot prove God's non-existence. They can provide at best only an alternate explanation for spiritual beliefs, but one which does not preclude a spiritual dimension to our lives. Just as my former co-worker's assertion that the moon landing was filmed on a Hollywood studio doesn't preclude that the moon landing actually happened, the arguments of the scientific atheists, regardless how good the science, cannot— can never— logically preclude the possibility that God or some spiritual dimension does in fact exist. As good as their science may be, their thesis fails the test of logic and so is their project misbegotten from its start. As the existentialists might say, with matters spiritual we're condemned to uncertainty.