Jun 16 2008

The Language of God-6: Existence and universal claims

(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)

Collins also takes the familiar tack of using negative arguments for god as a wedge to get his foot in the logical door and, after doing so, to make sweeping claims. This chain of ‘reasoning’ will be familiar to anyone who has ever discussed the existence of god with a believer and it goes like this:

  1. Start by identifying some features of the universe for which we do not currently have a good scientific explanation.
  2. Assert that we cannot prove that god was not the cause of those specific events.
  3. Assert that therefore it is possible that god could have been the cause.
  4. Assert that therefore it is possible to believe that god can exist.
  5. Assert that since god can exist and I feel that god exists, therefore god does exist.
  6. Assert that since god exists, he can do anything at all, so any and all miracles are possible.
  7. Grant miracle status only to those that I personally or my particular religious sect approve of.
  8. Hence only my particular religious belief in god is correct and everyone else’s is wrong.

This is basically how all religions justify their claims that they are the one true religion. Here are some examples from Collins’s book of the first three steps of this reasoning at work. (The next four steps were also taken by him elsewhere, as I showed in previous posts. Collins is an inclusive evangelical and tries to avoid the right religion/wrong religion debate and thus does not explicitly make the last claim, although his belief in Jesus Christ as the son of god is an indirect statement of it.)

[Dawkins] argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity and the origins of humankind, so there is no more need for God. While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility for multiple acts of creation of each species on the planet, it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution. (p. 220)
. . .
The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins’s claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. (p. 222)

This fails the logic test. As mathematician John Allen Paulos argues in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), basic logic requires that existence claims and universal claims be treated differently.

Existence claims can be proved but not disproved. “No matter how absurd the existence claim (there exists a dog who speaks English out of its rear end), we cannot look everywhere and check everything in order to assert with absolute confidence that there’s no entity having the property.” (Paulos, p. 42) But all the person making the existence claim needs to do to prove it is to produce just one specimen. So the burden of proof is on the person making the existence claim, and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to deny the validity of the claim.

On the other hand, universal claims can be disproved but not proved. For example, the claim that all swans are white can be disproved by producing just one black swan. But no one can prove the universal claim since we can never say we have checked each and every swan. So the burden of proof is on the person denying the universal claim and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to assume the validity of the universal claim.

This is how science works. Claims that Higgs bosons with certain properties exist (as is claimed by the currently dominant theory in particle physics) is an existence claim and until evidence is produced for it, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that there is no such thing. That is why over 2,000 physicists from 32 countries are involved in the building of a huge and expensive accelerator in Europe known as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) that is designed to produce at least one such Higgs particle, even though theorists feel confident that it exists.

On other hand, the claim that “all electrons have the same rest mass” is a universal claim based on observations of a limited set of electrons and it is logical to accept it as valid until someone produces a counter-example.

The claim that god exists is clearly an existence claim, and so the burden of proof is on the believer to produce god. If believers fail to produce god or to provide indirect but credible evidence of his existence, the rational thing is to assume non-existence.

When it comes to religion Collins, like many others, abandons the reasoning powers he has demonstrated in his scientific work when he says “Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.” (p. 222)

Collins’s claim is simply wrong. Atheism is the logical and rational consequence of the failure of believers to produce evidence in favor of their existence claim for god.

POST SCRIPT: Why you shouldn’t throw paperclips

We have all had experience with the co-worker or acquaintance who thinks he/she is being funny by repeating something over and over when it is just infuriatingly annoying. Well, sometimes it is just too much to take.


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  1. 1

    Hi Mano,

    I especially like your “existence” vs. “universal” claims discussion, and how making one or the other kind of argument results in a one a particular direction for the “burden of proof”. This explains very nicely which kinds of experiments are conducted and which topics scientists are inclined to study. Neat!

  2. 2

    Playing God! – ‘The World is not Enough’
    Nobel Prize hungry Physicists are racing each other and stopping at nothing to try to find the supposed ‘Higgs Boson’(aka ‘God’) Particle, among others, and are risking nothing less than the annihilation of the Earth and all Life in endless experiments to try to solve theoretical problems when urgent real problems face the planet. The European Organization for Nuclear Research(CERN) new Large Hadron Collider(LHC) is the world’s most powerful atom smasher that will soon be firing subatomic particles at each other at nearly the speed of light to create Miniature Big Bangs producing clouds of Micro Black Holes, Strangelets and other potentially cataclysmic phenomena.
    The CERN-LHC website Mainpage itself states quote: “There are many theories as to what will result from these collisions,…” This stunning admission is because they truly don’t know what’s going to happen. They are experimenting with forces they don’t understand to obtain results they can’t comprehend. If you think like most people do that ‘They must know what they’re doing.’ you could not be more wrong. The second part of the quote reads “…but what’s for sure is that a brave new world of physics will emerge from the new accelerator,…” A molecularly changed or Black Hole consumed Lifeless World? The end of the quote reads “as knowledge in particle physics goes on to describe the workings of the Universe.” These experiments to date have so far produced infinitely more questions than answers but there isn’t a particle experimentalist physicist alive who wouldn’t gladly trade his life to glimpse the “God particle”, and sacrifice the rest of us with him.
    This quote from Nation Geographic exactly sums this “science” up: “That’s the essence of experimental particle physics: You smash stuff together and see what other stuff comes out.”
    For more information visit;
    Popular Mechanics – “World’s Biggest Science Project Aims to Unlock ‘God Particle’” – http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/extreme_machines/4216588.html

  3. 3
    Ian Kluge

    The weakest point in this convoluted parody of philosophical arguments for God is the word “currently” in the first premise. This term hides two unprovable assumptions: (1) that science will be able to explain this certain feature at some in the future and (b) that science actually can explain it adequately. Neither assumption is provable and is nothing more an expression of confidence, i.e. act of faith. Given the record of science, our faith in science may be described as ‘rational trust’ – but then but then at least some religions can make the same claim.
    The argument that there may be features of the universe that cannot by nature be explained scientifically is valid because scientific explanations depend on, for example, (a) the fact that something (physical, quantifiable) exists rather than nothing; (b) the existence of laws, (c) the principle of sufficient reason. Anything that ‘falls within’ these three is available for scientific explanation but explaining the very existence of these three does not fall within the purview of science since it leaves behind the necessary conditions on which all scientific explanations are based. This is an inherent limit of science itself.

    RE existence and universal claims: if this is an accurate presentation of Paulos’ view, then it is a gross oversimplification of the issue. Existence claims and universal claims are not absolutely disjunct. The universal claim that all swans are white implicitly includes the claim that swans exist, so every universal claim has an embedded existence claim.

    The claim that ‘X exists’ i.e. there exists at least one object designated X, also hides a universal. If there is only object X then it is universally true that every X exists and has the attributes of X. If there is more than one X, then it is universally true that all entities designated as X have the attributes that allow them to be designated as X.

    Unfortunately, this plays havoc with the notion that existence claims solely have the burden of proof – and thereby undercuts this argument against theism.

    This leads to the question ‘What do you accept as ‘proof’?’ of an existence claim, and ‘For what kind of objects?’ IOW, the nature of the required proof must be appropriate to the nature of the object to be proven. An apple does not prove the existence of rabbits, for obvious reasons. A material object requires material proof, i.e. quantifiable, material/physical, objectively observable proof.

    However, what will we do with non-material objects, e.g. the meaning of a book? No amount of scientific, physical study will tell us what it means. Saying that the meaning is ‘unreal’ is obviously silly since by virtue of reading this message you disprove your own objection.
    The kind of proof we can require for the existence of the meaning of a book is different – and the same is true of a non-material object like God. That is why the logical proofs for God’s existence play such an important role in the theism/atheism debate. Demanding a scientific proof of God is like demanding a logical proof of the sun: we just need to open our eyes. The kind of proof being demanded is not appropriate to the nature of the object. Many atheist arguments trip over this stumbling block.

    That is why Dawkins is simply wrong. Given the self-imposed limitations of science, God cannot be an object of scientific study. To say that God is such a subject, is to confuse one kind of object for another. To treat one like the other is to set up a straw man argument – something at which Dawkins, among other atheists, is very proficient.

  4. 4
    Carolyn Wu

    “This is basically how all religions justify their claims that they are the one true religion.”

    This is your universal claim, which has an assumption that all religions claim to be the “one true religion”:

    Unitarian Universalism — a religion that has no creed and does not require God (although a majority of UU adherents believe in God, a sizeable minority are atheists).

    “Unitarian Universalism is a theologically diverse religion in which members support one another in our search for truth and meaning. We have historic roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions, but today individual Unitarian Universalists may identify as Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, Humanist, Pagan, or with other philosophical or religious traditions.”

    From http://www.uua.org/visitors/index.shtml

    Perhaps this is a religion for which you cannot find a problem? If so, then the problem is not religion, but rather some (or even most) religions.

  5. 5
    Jared A


    You are mistaking categories for the things they represent. Books fall into a particularly category, which you can define. You can also define things such as meanings of books, names of books, and swans.

    This is an important distinction because I think what you really should have been saying is that a universal claim requires the existence of a category, which is an entirely different kind of existence.

    For example, you can have a category for unicorns. Depending on the specificity of this category, the claim “Unicorns exist” might actually be false or true (are rhinos unicorns?–does existing in fiction count as an “existence”). Categories and their nature are very important.

    I can’t go much further in the philosophy around categories, because I’m really an amateur in this arena. I suggest you consult with your neighborhood ontologist.

    very best,

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