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Discussion 2 to Meditation 299
Better Analogies to God

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The claim that an invisible pink unicorn is in the room can be generalized into:

Something exists which is undetectable.

Generalizing it this way has the benefit of eliminating the specific details which can it be argued make the claim a logical absurdity. As a negative, it really takes away the motive to argue the claim - and the person who made the claim wants an argument in order to make one simple point:

It is possible to make a statement which can neither be proved nor disproved.

But still "Something exists which is undetectable" makes the point very well.

And Godel's Incompleteness Theorem makes the point even better for those mathematically inclined.

But does this have anything to do with arguments for god? Is god something which can neither be proved nor disproved?[1]

I will agree that the existence of gods, in general, cannot be disproved. It is not up to those who deny or doubt the existence of gods to provide disproof. But that leaves open the issue of proof.

Invisible pink unicorns, or the generalized something undetectable, can indeed neither be proved or disproved. And that is because, by the very way they are defined, they are undetectable. There is no interaction with the world.

But gods?

Those who believe in gods sincerely believe there is an interaction with detectable effects even if the deity itself cannot be detected..

Because of that, we can hold their feet to the fire of logic and demand proof.

The invisible pink unicorn lets them off - it make proof and disproof both unavailable, and in the case of a claim of a god having an impact on the world, proof should be available.

Are there better analogies - if an analogy must be used to discuss the possible existence of a deity?

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, it was believed there was an invisible substance called phlogiston which was contained in metals and in materials which would burn. It had never been detected directly, but it was believed to exist because it interacted with the world with detectable effects:

Phlogiston could not be detected directly, and it was claimed that it interacted with the world. In 1777 Antoine Laurent Lavoisier published results showing chemical reactions with oxygen accounted for the actions attributed to phlogiston.

It used to be believed that space was filled with an invisible substance called aether. It had never been detected directly, but it was believed to exist because something was necessary to transmit light.

Aether could not be detected directly, and but the claim it transmitted light showed its interaction with the world.

Eventually, as light was shown to have both wave and particle properties, the need for aether disappeared.

To me, phlogiston and aether are far better analogies to god than is an invisible pink unicorn. Phlogiston, aether and god cannot be detected directly, and yet things happen in the world which have been attributed to them.

Better reasons have been found for the things attributed to phlogiston and aether, and the concepts have been largely[2] abandoned. Perhaps analogously, we should do the same for god.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Those looking for inconsistencies may be able to find on this site one or more occasions in the past where I suggested there may be an analogy between Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and god. I have changed my mind.
  2. There are still some who will not abandon the concept of aether even though it is not necessary.