On Total Certainty About God

IN a recent discussion about whether religions contain truth, my friend mentioned that “we cannot be 100% certain that there isn’t a God.” Indeed, the remark was correct, but it carries no weight in discussions of whether individual religions are true. I can’t be 100% sure that I am not hallucinating right now, or that I am not in a dream, or that I am not a brain in a vat with nothing but computer simulated experiences. Total certainty is not a reasonable standard for belief about anything, for there is nothing that a person can know that admits no possibility of error (except, perhaps, the truth of his or her own existence). What we perceive as absolute truth or irrefutable evidence could always be the result of a brain malfunction. Hence, if you require 100% certainty to have “belief”, then you will be left “believing” in nothing, rendering the word effectively useless. A much more reasonable usage would be one which allows for statements such as, “the odds are strongly in favor of X, therefore I believe in X.”

When it comes to belief about God, people often apply a different standard of evidence than they do to all other situations. Most everyone would be willing to say that “there is no rabbit living on the moon”, even though they cannot know this with certainty. After all, it is hypothetically possible that putting a rabbit on the moon was a part of some secret military project. And yet (despite their willingness to deny the moon rabbit), a great many people who find the existence of a God very improbable are not willing to say “there is no God” or even “I don’t believe in God.” This is likely, in part, due to cultural sensitivity (a claim that God does not exist certainly is offensive to some people) and it could also be related to the high stakes involved (if God is as he is perceived by many of the world religions, He has the power to punish and reward, so some may think it’s best not to take the risk of bad mouthing Him, even if you strongly doubt His existence). But it seems that another factor at play is the bizarre and essentially ridiculous redefining of the word “believe” that occurs in the God context.

While I have met a great many non-believers and self proclaimed atheists, I have never heard anyone claim that they could absolutely disprove the existence of all possible forms of God. In fact, using some definitions of “God” (such as an unspecified “higher power”) God cannot be disproven even in theory. Furthermore, an all powerful God, if He existed, could simply make us 100% certain in His absence while he continues to exist, showing that we can never eliminate ALL possibility of such a being.

I have again and again encountered people who, when asked whether they believe in God, claim they are agnostic (or won’t say outright that God doesn’t exist), but when asked how probable they think God is, say something to the effect of “highly improbable.” If it is reasonable to say that “rabbits on the moon do not exist” when such rabbits seem highly improbable, why shouldn’t a person say “God does not exist” if they feel God is equally improbable? The (now somewhat popular) notion that those who say they do not believe in God (or those who say they are atheists) think they can disprove Him with 100% certainty is not compatible with common English usage or with common sense.

This entry was posted in God, Religion, Skepticism, Truth. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On Total Certainty About God

  1. Eugene says:

    Hello, clockbackward!
    I have found great interest in your writings, especially in the “Is Math True” article. I just visited your blog again, and read about your opinions on truth in this article. I have a question for you though – do you personally believe in truth? Your blog slogan states

    “A Mathematician Writes About Philosophy, Science, Rationality, Ethics, Religion, Skepticism and the Search for Truth”

    It is just interesting for me to know your personal opinion. It could be assumed, that truth is a concept, and while so can be an idea, an not a part of reality. I personally think that truth does exist, although relative truth, but while so i cannot disallow the thought of it’s absence.

    Any-who, thanks for your work and all the best wishes. Hope to see your reply!
    it’s

  2. Hello,
    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I believe that some things are true and others are not. For example it is true that this sentence contains eleven words. On the other hand, yes, truth is a concept, so it doesn’t “exist” in a physical way, like you and I exist.

  3. Eugene says:

    Well then i will rephrase my question, although i most likely will assume that i know the answer, do you believe that truth is absolute or rather relative?

  4. Probabilities are relative. For instance, if you roll a balanced die, and then you look at it (and see it’s a five), but I haven’t looked at it yet, then the probability it is a 6 (from my perspective) is 1/6, but the probability it is a 6 from your perspective is 0. There is no objective truth to the matter about the probability of an event, until you take into account what information is available. Truth though, generally speaking, is not relative. Either I’m a salmon, or I’m not. Of course, many statements are too ambiguous to be true or false (e.g. am I tall?), or don’t fit into the true/false dichotomy (e.g. how tall am I?).

  5. Eugene says:

    Thank you for your descriptive answers!

    Indeed there are statements or questions for a right (truthful) answer which are so blurred, that giving this answer or seeing the truth might seem impossible. I might be wrong, but a proper example might be the good’ol Liars Paradox, in which, as far as i understand it, truth and falsehood are undivided. Of-course it is written, that this paradox has many solutions to it, but i do not know anything about that.

    Why i asked you about truth and it’s absoluteness or relativity is because i noticed this phrase in your “Is Math True” article and wanted to know, yet again, your own personal opinion about my thought about it.

    Here goes – “In conclusion: numbers and other mathematical objects are simply concepts, and not things that are actually observable in the universe, so we cannot say that statements like 3+2=5 are true in the same way that we can say that the statement “massive objects exert forces on other massive objects” is true.”

    What i think about here is that if in this separate occurrence we allow the thought, that truth is relative, then we can come to a conclusion, – numbers and other mathematical objects, say 3+2=5 are not true in the same way as the thought of massive objects exerting forces on other massive objects, but the latter conclusion, if i am not mistaken, to some extent, does too include calculation, or by the very least it acknowledges weight or size, so it’s a elementary form of calculation, although i might be mistaken. If so, EVEN this statement is by some extent mathematical counting, and might not be as true as some other more abstract thinking about sizes, objects and so forth.

  6. I would say that a statement like “1+1=2” is fundamentally different than a statement like “if i have one ball, and you have one ball, and we both put them into an empty bag, then there are two balls in the bag”, insofar as the first is a statement about numbers which are not physically existent (i.e. they are merely concepts), and the second is a statement about the properties of the physical world. Sure, the second involves counting, but it is still a statement about physical reality, not about numbers themselves.

  7. JD says:

    So do you believe in the one infinite creator ?? Or some based type thing like that.. Everything came from only one then there couldn’t be anything before it right ?? or you know who knows for “certain”. People should not be so concerned with what the common person is concerned about for example materialistic things but should be trying to spend time figuring out what are we ?? Asking themselves where did I come from ?? something of that nature. I’m pretty sure with your knowledge you should see where i am going with this !!

  8. Jerzy Usowicz says:

    “Truth is one of the central subjects in philosophy.”

    If you want to know more about this concept please consult the following webpages:
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth/
    or
    http://www.philosophynews.com/post/2015/01/29/What-is-Truth.aspx
    or simply write in Google: What is truth? You’ll get a tons of information on this
    deeply studied subject.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *