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On “You Can’t Prove A Negative”

May 15, 2013

“What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof” – Christopher Hitchens

“One of the most effective devices is to encourage debate, but within a system of unspoken presuppositions that incorporate the basic principals of the doctrinal systems. These principals are therefore removed from inspection; they become the framework for thinkable thought, not objects of rationale consideration.” – Noam Chomsky

A common reply that many atheists give when asked about evidence for atheism is “you can’t prove a negative”. Does this response have any validity? Using reason and critical thinking we’re going to look at three things that (ironically) point to the negative.

First, the negative is proven, or attempts are made to prove the negative thousands, if not millions of times every day. In courts around the world lawyers defend clients who have been accused of a crime. The defense lawyer either attempts to prove that their client is not the person who committed the crime, or attempts to prove that a crime was not committed, the alleged crime does not exist–proving the negative.

Second, an atheist who actively brings up objections to theism is in effect trying to prove atheism–trying to prove the negative. So we see then that the argument “you can’t prove a negative” either comes from a mistaken account of previous actions or is disingenuous.

Third, for the atheist who doesn’t argue objections to theism, (but not excluding the atheist who does) but merely says in defense of their atheism “you can’t prove a negative”, that atheist then is committing the logical fallacy of begging the question because they have accepted the conclusion “there is no God” because they have already accepted the premise–without proof–“there is no God”. So their atheism is then in fact based on circular reasoning.

Is it possible to prove atheism? Is it possible to prove there is no God?

Theoretically it is. One would have to have all knowledge of existence to say with certainty that there is no God. Obviously this is not achievable.

Now one may argue “the same thing goes for proving there is a God”. This is not so. Christians start with the person of Jesus of Nazareth, His life and what we know about Him and go from there. Of course there are other evidences such as the Cosmological Argument, and various other historical, scientific, and philosophical evidences that I would implore those who are skeptics and seekers to investigate.

See, Christianity isn’t built upon circular reasoning or belief without evidence. There are plenty of good reasons and evidence to accept Christianity as true. The question I would ask skeptics and seekers is this: Are you willing to investigate and use reason and critical thinking to come to an unbiased conclusion? Because this conclusion, more than any other, will shape your life.

  1. You are absolutely correct! Great blog!

  2. Thank you David!

  3. Dan permalink

    A defense lawyer attempts to establish reasonable doubt. Which is agnosticism. The only reasonable choice by which people honestly admit they don’t know the answers and stop being tools to each other.

    • Hi Dan, thanks for responding.

      A defense lawyer may certainly try to achieve reasonable doubt, but there are also times where a lawyer establishes that the crime did not happen at all. This may take place in copyright or trademark law, for instance.

      I would also say that agnosticism is not only far from the only reasonable choice, I would sday it’s a poor choice. Saying “I don’t, and can’t know” seems to me to be giving up on finding truth. I would aslo say that when a person authentically follows the teachings of Jesus, they refrain from “being tools to each other”. I would also suggest that all of us, whether theist, atheist or agnostic, are on equal ground morally. That is we all have our own (and also the same) faults and human frailtys, and none can claim moral superiority.

  4. John Taylor permalink

    disprove a negative?
    Of course it is possible to disprove any particular god. We can prove/ disprove the negative when that is a defined term. For example, we know Thor the god of thunder is a myth because we know thunder occurs where no old man is hitting the clouds with a large hammer. We can observe the negative (no Thor).

    Similarity we can use the same methodology on the biblical god and see that the earth was not made in 7 days, woman did not begin with a man’s rib, the global flood did not occur per biblical claims, and God watching his son be tortured and killed before consenting to forgive people is immoral. We can therefore have full reason to place the biblical god (and all other Abrahamic gods) in the category of myth.

    Bottom line
    There may someday be something discovered to which the term “god” can justifiably be attached, however, the grossly incompetent bullies in the sky daddy caricatures envisioned by modern religions are most certainly myths.

    • Hi John, thanks for responding. Your first statement agrees with what I said, so there’s no contention there. However, on your second statement on disproving the biblical God…

      The Bible does not necessarily say creation was accomplished in 7 days. Here’s why:

      In the original language that the text was written, the word that’s translated into “day” is “yom”. Now the word yom has many meanings, it can mean a day, week, month, or an indefinite period of time. Also, according to the biblical account, there was no literal 24 hour period until the fourth day, so yom could not be taken as “day” in the English sense before then. Also, it’s highly unlikely Adam could have accomplished all he did in the “sixth day (yom)” in a 24 hour period.

      You can not possibly enter evidence that woman did not begin as the account says, so this is then a philisophical presupposition, and not at all a scientific or logical finding. Same goes with the flood, which by the way has been mentioned in other cultures historty such as the epic of Gilgamesh.

      How do you come to the conclusion that Christs atoning sacrifice is immoral?

      Your last statement is ironically the circular reasoning mentioned in the article.

      Thanks for responding, hope to hear from you again. And if you haven’t read the comment policy, please do so.

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