Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Proof and Faith

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 29, 1997

Posted to HotWired 30 Oct 97

Before beginning any argument, I would like to recommend that writers view my Guide to the Logical Fallacies. While silent on the issue of religion, the guide is not silent on the sort of sloppy argumentation displayed by both sides in this thread.

That said:

  1. Strictly speaking, the existence of near death experiences does not prove the existence of God. That is because it is logically possible for life after death to exist even if God does exist.
  2. On the one hand, William Drake offers an argument he believes is a proof of God. However, on the other hand, when logical refutations are offered, he suggests that belief in God does not depend on logic. He can't have it both ways. The concept of "proof" is a logical concept - to say that you have a proof for P is to say that you have a logical argument leading to the conclusion that P is true. No logic, no proof.
  3. In my opinion, no argument can prove the existence of God. That is because God, by all accounts, exists beyond the physical world and is not subject to the laws of the physical world. Yet, all that we can adduce as premises in support of God's existence are statements about the physical world. Since, by the logical standards of proof, a conclusion cannot go beyond the premises, it follows that a prof of God is impossible.
  4. (The most promising lines for a proof is offered by Alvin Plantiga. He argues in favour of the existence of God based on the rules of modal logic, that is, the logic of possibility and necessity. That said, (a) those laws are not yet fully understood, and (b) he must still introduce an unproven premise in support of his proofs).
  5. In fact, most 'proofs' of the existence of God are based on individuals' religious experience. Near death experiences are one form of religious experience; many others exist. Wide literature is available on this phenomenon (that it is a phenomenon is largely indisputable).
  6. But an experience of P is in no way a proof of P. Some examples were somewhat rudely cited above. We know we can generate hallucinatory experiences though the use of drugs, sleep deprivation, and other extreme behaviours. Additionally, even in clear states of consciousness, what we perceive is not always what exists. Sticks do not bend when placed in water, for example.
  7. In order to infer from experience to existence, it is necessary that experiences share a certain set of qualities. There is no concrete set of rules, but a broad set of generally acceptable criteria emerges:
    • The experiences must be public, that is, reported by more than one person.
    • The experiences must be predictable.
    • The experiences must be durable.
    Genuine though the reports may be, religious experience has the misfortune of satisfying none of the above criteria. Therefore, reports of religious experience are not sufficient to make the existence of God probable, let alone proven.
  8. The greatest 'proof' that God exists lies in the inner conviction of those who believe in God. Their conviction in almost all cases depends not on reason but rather on faith. Faith by its very nature is a belief in something which is beyond proof. That there is faith, and that it is sufficient to motivate a belief in god in many people, is indisputable.
  9. But faith is very personal. It is not something which can be passed from one person to another through normal means of argument. Hence the desire by many faithful to construct a 'proof'. I think that this desire is mistaken. In contemporary times especially it provokes a reaction out of proportion to the proposition.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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