Keeping Track

So Mark Houlsby asserts that God does not exist. I challenged him to prove this assertion. Here is his argument:

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I and others have attempted to refute this argument by arguing “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We proffered plausible counterexamples: such things as protons (at one time), intelligent life in the Andromeda galaxy, and black holes (at one time). We argued that it is overwhelmingly likely that there are things for which we do not yet have evidence.

His response is odd.

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As should be clear from his argument,

  1. There is no evidence for God.
  2. ∴ God does not exist.

he has a suppressed premise. What’s premise 2?  It would have to be:

MH2: Anything for which there is no evidence does not exist.

Worse yet, he seems to hold

MH4: If X exists, necessarily there is evidence that X exists.

from his proton argument.

But evidence is an epistemological concept, pertaining to knowledge, to how we know that something exists or not, and what its properties are. Existence on the other hand is a metaphysical or ontological concept.

There seems to simply be no necessary connection between existence and evidence, such that either “a lack of evidence for X ⇒ X does not exist” nor “X exists ⇒ there is evidence that X exists.”

It seems perfectly obvious that there could be things which are unknown to us, because not yet discovered, or more strongly, things that are perhaps unknown to us in principle, given the limits of human cognition.   Given his response to protons in the 1st century, he might claim the evidence is there, because the existence is the evidence.  He would then be saying that the existence of X is the evidence that X exists.

This would make sense out of MH2 and MH4, but then he would be identifying existence and evidence, so his premises would translate (be substitution of equivalent terms) to:

MH2: Anything for which there is no evidence is something for which there is no evidence.

MH4: If X exists,  X exists. 

It would be impossible to deny these premises when formulated in this way, but the cost is that they are now vacuous tautologies from which nothing follows.  It would make his argument against the existence of God circular, because MH1: there is no evidence for God would just mean MH3: God does not exist.  When your first premise IS your conclusion, you are either begging the question (if you think you proved your conclusion) or you haven’t gone anywhere:

  1. God does not exist.
  2. ∴ God does not exist.

That’s valid, certainly, but it isn’t a proof.  Presented as a proof it is question-begging.

This is ongoing, so I’m using my blog to keep track.  Stay tuned!

On the question of evidence, I thought of perhaps an even better counterexample to Houlsby’s claim, after Thomas Nagel’s famous “What is it like to be a bat?” I was looking at my cat this morning, and wondering what it is like to be a cat.  If we accept that cats and bats are conscious beings, then they are “experiencing subjects of a life” and so there is “something it is like to be them.”  But human beings, it seems, can never know what it is like to be a cat. Because, by definition, a human being is a human being and not a cat.  Even if, hypothetically, one could hook one’s brain to a cat and have experience cat experiences,  this would still not be “what it is like to be a cat” but “what it is like for a human being to have cat experiences run through their brain.”  Short of magic, where a witch turns a person into a cat, it seems there is an in-principle barrier to knowing what it is like to be a cat.  Which is to say, there is no possible evidence that could tell us what it is like to be a cat. Again I Houlsby could make the move of saying “there is evidence, but it is completely unexperienceable by us as evidence.”  But of course to do this would, again, utterly defeat his argument that God does not exist, unless he knows, for a fact, that there is no evidence for God, which would include evidence which is in principle not experienceable by any human being.  But of course he couldn’t know such a thing.

His claim that MH1: There is no evidence for God is already defeated by AMH1: It is possible there is evidence of God that has not yet be discovered.  I of course hold there is evidence for God, and plenty of it, but even if Houlsby rejects everything put forward as evidence, he is still not warranted in claiming there is none, but only that he has not seen any. Even worse, his peculiar definition of evidence seems to entail AMH1′: It is possible there is evidence for God that is not in principle experienceable by any human being (since he seems to hold that evidence can exist apart from it doing any evidentiary work for anything or anyone).  This also radically undercuts his claim that there is no evidence for God since on this understanding, literally anything could be evidence for God, in such a way that it is, objectively, evidence, but it is unknown to anyone that it is evidence and how it is evidence. For all Houlsby knows, his fallacious argument that there is no God might be evidence for the existence of God; since he asserts evidence exists independently of its being known by anyone to be evidence, he has know way of knowing.  Someone might discover a sound argument in which Houlsby’s fallacious argument for the nonexistence of God is actual evidence for the existence of God.  I’m not saying that it is; I’m saying he can’t rule out the possibility that it is not, since for him “to be evidence” does not require evidence to do any evidentiary work for anyone.



14 comments on “Keeping Track

  1. theofloinn says:

    Aristotle held that there was a minimal cut of matter that could hold a given form. That is, if you cut water small enough, the smallest piece would no longer be “water,” but would have some other form. Let’s call that an “H2O molecule.” If you cut that, you get hydrogen and oxygen. If you cut the hydrogen, you get proton and electron. If you cut proton, you get quarks. And quarks are distinguishable by types, which means they must have parts if they exist at all. (Heisenberg shied away from ascribing objective existence to subatomic particles, calling them bits of potency instead.) In any case, Aristotle’s minima are more like the Dalton atom than were Democritus’ uncuttables.


  2. […] take a peek over at Eve Keneinan’s post Keeping Track, which recounts a Twitter discussion between her, @MrOzAtheist, and Mark Houlsby, about Houlsby’s […]


  3. keithnoback says:

    Meh. This all circles back around to the issue of the relevance, and finally truth, of logically possible entities. One can construct logically valid arguments regarding such entities, but so what?
    If one is careful with one’s definitions – and their scope – any number of such entities may be demonstrated (Laplace’s demon for example). But logical validity does not make truth, and in philosophy, definitions are dirt cheap (to paraphrase a smarter man than I).
    So where does this end, in the land without an epistemology? Isn’t that a trackless waste?


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      No, it isn’t a “trackless waste” just because one cannot prove the existence of things by defining them. Definition is not about that. Definitions pertain to TERMS, so we can know what it is that we are TALKING ABOUT.

      Unless we can define our terms, we cannot then go on to use evidence to make existence claims. If I want to assert “at least one flarg exists” I have to DEFINE the term “flarg”. Doing this doesn’t ANSWER the question of whether flargs exist, but it does tell us what we are looking for and where we might look for it and by what means.

      Epistemology is about HOW we know WHAT we do, in fact, know, and WHAT are cognitive powers are. Unless you reject knowledge entirely—which is absurd—it is obviously useful to attempt to know HOW we know and WHAT we can know (and what not).

      You are right that “making up definitions, cheaply, and then constructing logically valid arguments from them” is a waste of time. But that isn’t what philosophers do. What they do is attempt to FORMULATE DEFINITIONS OF THINGS THAT CORRESPOND TO REALITY.

      Reality or being is always the test of the correctness of a definition, just as reality or being in the form of facts is the test of the truth of a proposition.

      The fact that we can “make up” arbitrary definitions does not entail there aren’t correct definitions of things anymore than the fact we can arbitrarily assert any claim entails that there are no true assertions.


      • keithnoback says:

        ‘Epistemology is about how we know what we do, in fact, know…”
        It sounds like you are proposing that epistemology is the business of explaining brute facts, which would validate my point re: trackless waste, a little too readily. I’m assuming that is not what you mean, but maybe it is.
        Anyway, that isn’t what I’m getting at when I say that definitions are cheap. The comment refers to the definitional process. To put it in your terms: How do you know what corresponds?


  4. Jason says:

    Also we have evidence of life in the Andromeda galaxy? Really?


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      As far as I know, he never said what said evidence is. Also, my claim was about “intelligent life,” just for the record.


      • Jason says:

        Ahh right Aristotle was not atoms, he was the four elements. Memory jogged. 🙂

        My physics knowledge is a little better though and I’ve kept up, or so I thought. I don’t recall anyone discovering any kind of evidence of life at all on Andromeda. Search engines seem to back up my negative recollection. Makes you wonder if this guy just makes stuff up on the fly.


  5. Jason says:

    My recollection is that Aristotle makes a kind of inductive argument that atoms exist. It was a long time ago when I read it and I remember it striking me as making sense, but it wasn’t really a scientific statement – more of a thought experiment. It’s quite a leap to protons from Aristotle, though. Protons are, of course, not atoms. In fact (and I very well could be wrong) I believe Aristotle postulated that atoms are indivisible. That’s why he called them “atoms.” You philosophers can certainly correct me if I’m wrong – I’d welcome it; very rusty on my philosophy these days.

    The proton issue is really a distraction, though. “There is no evidence for X” is simply not the same thing as “X does not exist.”


  6. Evidence existed for Atoms in the 1st Century; Aristotle had already argued they had to exist. We eventually discovered something we now call the Atom, however, it is not what Aristotle called the Atom, the subatomic particles that make up what scientists now call the Atom appear to be more what Aristotle had in mind.

    In other words, proof already existed and was talked about for Protons in the 1st Century. We didn’t prove Protons existed or describe or name them but the proof was already there for things just like it.


    • Jay E. says:

      What was the proof, exactly? The Greeks are famous for thinking logically, but equally infamous for their relative lack of scientific experimentation (with a few notable examples, of course).

      You know what else was talked about in the 1st Century and has been defended logically?



      • Eve Keneinan says:

        Democritus’ writings are lost to us, unfortunately. We mostly know what he said from Aristotle’s statements of his ideas in the course of his [Aristotle’s] refutations of them.


        • Jay E. says:

          Exactly; the proofs for the proton were based in logic, not observation. Therefore, it should also be acceptable to argue for the existence of God from the same foundation.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Actually, Aristotle rejected atoms. That was the theory of Democritus. ‘Atom’ comes from the Greek ‘a-tomos’ which means ‘uncuttable.’ Democritus postulated that physical nature was, at bottom, mostly empty space (the void) partially filled with tiny bit of matter, which could clump together into bigger aggregations. He denied that you could infinitely divide matter: e.g. he asserted that the nature of matter was to be a DISCRETE QUANTITY (like number) rather than a CONTINUOUS QUANTITY (like a line).

      Aristotle entirely rejected this view, atomism, and argued that “empty” space, a void, was physically impossible. Atomism is the the senses of “the physical world consists of atoms in the void” came back strongly in early modernity, but we have passed that point again. Once again we know that there is no void, that all space is full of strange things such as fields and quantum foam, but full it is.


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