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Friday, March 18, 2011

Falsifiability

   This article is a companion piece to Open Your Mind.

I have an important question for theists out there. Really, the question can be applied to most any belief, but it’s especially important for theists because it’s a question they always have so much trouble answering. Here goes.

What conceivable observation or set of observations would, if they were made, demonstrate that your god or gods do not exist?

I doubt many theists have ever really asked themselves this question before, and most will have great difficulty in providing an answer. However, answering this question is essential for honest discussion of theists’ claims. I’ve heard too many people insist that you can’t prove that their gods do not exist. They do this as a defense, often in conjunction with NOMA to make their gods non-scientific. They think that by placing their gods beyond analysis they can protect them from criticism. Many will also say that because you can’t prove their gods’ existence or nonexistence, the atheists’ position requires every bit as much faith as the theists’. Such people are wrong on both counts.

Religions make a wide variety of claims that go beyond the existence of some sort of god. Many of these claims involve ideas about what kind of actions will lead to the best life or afterlife. They also frequently use their gods to explain things that have not yet been explained through science. But in using unfalsifiable gods to make such claims, the theists remove key requirements for good explanations and predictions.

Let’s suppose we have some phenomenon that we wish to explain, such as a blue sky. The god of the gaps proponents swoop in and say “the sky is blue because God made it so.” Many people seem to think that this qualifies as a good explanation. After all, it offers a reason (God) that the sky is blue. However, the clever skeptic will then ask “but why is the sky blue and not green?”

This second question poses a problem to the unfalsifiable gods. After all, if there is no conceivable observation that would demonstrate such a god to be false, then there is also no reason we couldn’t have a green sky instead of a blue sky. In light of this second question, we see that the god of the gaps explanation only goes part way. It tries to tell us how the world got the way it is, but it fails to give a reason for why the world is not the way it is not.

An easy way to tell the good explanations from these bad explanations is that good explanations are effectively post-dictions of the phenomenon in question. In other words, a good explanation would predict the explained phenomenon had it not yet been observed. Again, we see that the god of the gaps is a poor explanation because it does not post-dict the phenomena it claims to explain. The unfalsifiable God is consistent with both a green and a blue sky, so it could not have been used to predict a blue sky had the sky not yet been observed.

And of course, this segues quite nicely into my next point. Unfalsifiable gods provide no predictive power. After all, predicting that something will happen must entail that other, mutually exclusive things will not happen. If I predict that we will have a full moon tomorrow, then I’m also predicting that we won’t have a new moon, or a waning crescent, or moon chunks falling to earth. Yet all these mutually exclusive occurrences are equally consistent with an unfalsifiable god, so such a god cannot tell us which of these phenomena will actually occur.

As a gnostic atheist, I deny the existence of all meaningful gods. Of course, it is by definition impossible to demonstrate the non-existence of an unfalsifiable god. But the point is that nobody needs to demonstrate such non-existence. Unfalsifiable gods are self-defeating not because they cannot exist, but because the very concept is useless. Such gods cannot be used to explain what we see. They cannot be used to predict what we do not yet know, nor to tell us the best way to achieve our goals. Such gods are merely unnecessary assumptions that provide no additional explanatory or predictive power. I reject them not due to conflicts with evidence or logic, but because using the word “exists” in such a manner is utterly pointless.

1 comment:

  1. Copy editor says: segue != segway.

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