Counting to Nothing

The exact definition of atheism is one that’s hotly-debated in philosophical circles. The everyday meaning, roughly: ‘an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God’ is simple enough, as is the slight clarification ‘or any of the gods’, and its corollary, ‘y’know or all of that stuff, like devils, angels, prayers, the afterlife, miracles and so on’.

But traditionally there’s been a problem which boils down to whether atheism is holding the belief ‘there is no God’ or not holding the belief ‘there is a God’. I think it’s easy to see there’s (a) little practical difference, and (b) quite an important one philosophically. It essentially comes down to who has the onus to justify their position, and the upshot is an endless cycle of ‘you need to prove God exists / no you need to prove God doesn’t exist’.

Part of the point of being an atheist is that you really don’t think this sort of thing is worth bothering with. But, if pressed, most atheists would say they hold the belief ‘there is no God’, rather than not holding the position there is one. Atheists who do talk about their atheism are fond of saying things like ‘Off is not a TV channel’ or ‘abstinence is not a sex position’, ‘people who don’t live in Manchester aren’t Amancunian’. It seems faintly ridiculous to suggest that someone who is not interested in Cricket ‘has not-interest’ in things like spin bowling, the West Indies, Wisden or the state of the pitch at Lords.

If atheism is framed as ‘not holding the belief “there is a God”’, that assumes the default state of the human race to be ‘religious’. It’s no coincidence that theists often accuse atheism of being a ‘religious belief’, or that ‘it takes more faith to be an atheist’, or say things like ‘the vast majority of the human race is religious’. If someone told a vegetarian that they were carnivorous, because No Meat is a type of animal, you would probably think that someone should be sectioned, but ‘atheism is a religious belief’ is a respectable argument in theistic circles.

It would be handy strategically for theist philosophers if atheism was ‘holding the position there is no God’, as it essentially makes the argument a Home game for them, not an Away one. Atheists, by that definition, have opted out of theism and they’re the ones who have to justify their position, and they’d have to do it starting out by explaining their notions of God and why they’re rejecting them.

The dark secret of theology is that it can’t do the job most people think it’s there for.

I’d always assumed a lot of theology was about looking for signs of God, like God was a Higgs-Boson or something like that. Modern theology actually has very little new to say or do concerning ‘proof God exists’ (or disproving it). And the reason is simple: within moments of starting a study of theology, it’s made clear it’s impossible to use logic to prove God exists.

We can demonstrate this in one sentence. Ahem. ‘There is, by definition, no way for us to distinguish God from a being capable of deceiving all other beings into believing it is God’. Whatever the miracle, demonstration of power, revelation, artefact or argument presented, however kind or wise ‘He’ was, we could never be sure that ‘God’ was the real deal. He wouldn’t need to be God, he would just need to be able to make us think he’s God. Even if ‘real God’ showed up with a host of angels, bellowed ‘IMPOSTER!’ and sent Jesus in to kick the false God in His nuts, then … well, what’s to say this new arrival isn’t just another imposter?

‘Fooling every human being’, presumably, would require a lot less power than ‘being God’. We’re easily fooled, after all. The overwhelming probability is that any given ‘God’ is not God. And, happily, that’s exactly what religions teach – the central proposition of most religions is that while every other one is the work of smooth conmen in it for the bling and pussy, this religion is the one, real deal. Not every human being holds the idea ‘gods exist’, but every single person holds the position ‘not all claims made about gods are true’. Indeed, if you’re looking for a ‘universal human religious belief’, then the only ones we know for certain have existed in every society are ‘sorry, not buying it’ and ‘I’m being dragged along under protest’. As the motto goes, every Christian’s an atheist when it comes to all the other gods. The early Christians in Rome were prosecuted for atheism, as they did not honour the city gods.

There have been lots of attempts at proofs, some better than others, but even the scholar responsible for the most extensive and influential attempts to come up with something compelling, Thomas Aquinas, concedes ‘to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible’. It’s not that we haven’t found compelling logical proof God exists, Aquinas says, there simply can’t be a compelling logical proof independent of faith. And, of course, if you have faith, you’ve already answered the question you’re meant to be exploring. It explains why Aquinas’ proofs are seen as eloquent and persuasive to existing believers, but weirdly lacking to everyone else.

Theology hasn’t been able to budge from this position. Alvin Plantinga, one of the most renowned living theologians, concedes this when he says,

“I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.”

So, with no evidence even possible for gods, atheism’s right?

Theist philosophers have this one covered. Plantinga adds:

“But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars … Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.”

Plantinga’s a renowned Christian theologian, he’s dedicated his life to this, he’s emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, not some internet commentator schmuck, so I’ll take him at face value, and assume that it’s a good analogy for atheism.

One problem for Plantinga is that we can answer his question about stars.

At one level, he’s right. We encounter practical problems, to put it mildly, if we try to work out if there are an odd or even number of stars. The concept of ‘the number of stars’ is problematic. It assumes that it’s clear what a star is (that there are no judgement calls to be made about whether, say, a neutron star is a star, or whether a star that’s forming counts). Critically, the speed of light limits the available information. Even if we had some pressing need to count all the stars to work out if there were an odd or even number of them, we simply can’t acquire the evidence. This limit to our information also throws up the familiar problem that what we look at in the night’s sky is not the state of the universe ‘now’. It’s scientifically illiterate to imagine we could just take a snapshot of the universe and count the dots.

However … we can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of stars, and the number of stars is a whole number. We can agree that any whole number is either odd or even. We can agree that the number of stars is, therefore, either an odd or even number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question.

We have, as far as I’m aware, no particular reason to think that there’s some law of physics governing whether there was an odd or even number of stars. There might be. Imagine the universe was and remained perfectly symmetrical. There would be, basically, two identical sets of stars. If one popped into existence on one side, another would on the opposite side. There would, by definition, be an even number of stars. As things stand, though, to the best of my knowledge, nothing like that is at work.

The universe is vast. Stars form and they die. So we can say with confidence that given the vastness of the universe, even in the time it takes to ask the question ‘are there an odd or even number of stars?’, the answer will alternate from ‘odd’ to ‘even’ many times – millions or billions of times, in fact. Plantinga doesn’t actually say ‘in the universe’, but even if he’s just talking about how many stars are in our Milky Way galaxy, the answer will change by the time you get to the end of the question.

Let’s say what Plantinga meant to ask is ‘are there an odd or even number of observable stars in the night’s sky?’. The answer is, to Magnitude 10, with 99.9% confidence, there are 626,883 stars, so ‘odd’.

So far, so pedantic. Many theologians would just sneer at the over-literalistic answers there and say it was evidence of ‘scientism’ an arrogant belief that science can reach all the answers merely by counting and measuring. I hope so, as this would be really handy for my argument.

As a thought experiment, imagine we lived in a universe where everyone was utterly confident there were only five stars. Now try answering Plantinga’s question. ‘Do we have good evidence for the proposition that there are an odd number or even number of stars?’

Easy.

Plantinga’s argument boils down to ‘sometimes it’s difficult to count stuff’, that’s all. And if, as he says, it’s an analogy for the existence of God, all he’s saying is that it’s difficult to count the number of gods.

So, let’s use the same reasoning.

We can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of gods, and the number of gods is a whole number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question ‘how many gods are there?’, the issue is simply that they’re difficult to count.

Except, by Plantinga’s own logic, it’s not difficult at all. Even if we confine ourselves to the ludicrously narrow definition of science preferred by some philosophers as ‘the study of things that can be measured’, counting falls squarely in the remit of ‘science’. As noted, logically, we can never count above zero proven gods. The empirical measurement of proven gods concurs.

Inspired by Plantinga, we could ask whether the evidence points to there being an odd or even number of gods. Is doing so really more glib than asking any other question about gods? In fact, it’s more useful than most – if there are an even number of gods, that would at least rule out monotheism and the Trinity, which wouldn’t be a bad day’s work. As it happens, zero is an even number [two multiplied by zero = zero].

So, here’s the clever bit. Plantinga – if his analogy is a good one – believes this to be a counting game, he believes that there are a fixed number of gods, and he understands that there’s no way to demonstrate by counting that there are more than zero gods. Both Plantinga and the atheist have taken measurement and logic as far as it is possible to take them, and agree they’ve reached ‘zero’ using that method, the result that atheist expected. So it’s clearly only Plantinga who needs to appeal further than this. The atheist can stop there. An atheist may also have faith, but certainly doesn’t need it. The atheist may be wrong, of course, but it’s plainly Plantinga, and not the atheist, who needs to justify his position.

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