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On Proof, Presumption, and the Existence of God

The debate on the existence of God cannot be resolved on the basis of proof. While atheists claim that theists fail to prove that God exists, theists respond by saying that atheists fail to prove that he doesn’t. Atheists would then say that the burden of proof lies on him who asserts and not on him who denies, and theists would point out that saying there is no god is also a positive claim that equally requires proof.

And so the outcome of the debate will most likely depend not on proof, but on presumption, because presumption determines which side has the burden of proof to overcome such presumption.

Presumption is defined as “an act of accepting that something is true until it is proved not true.” In law, this refers particularly to a rebuttable presumption (as opposed to a conclusive presumption), that is, presumed as such until defeated by proof to the contrary.

But are presumptions arbitrary? For instance, can atheists just presume that God does not exist while theists can presume that he does, leading to yet another stalemate? Another definition of presumption says that it’s not: “a legal inference as to the existence or truth of a fact not certainly known that is drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact.”

If we are to apply the above definition to the existence of God, it would help to focus on the operative words and phrases: an inference drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact. In other words, based on our present knowledge of the universe, which is more sensible to presume, that God exists, or that he doesn’t?

Centuries ago, before Darwin published his theory of natural selection, it would seem utterly foolish to presume that there is no Creator given the beauty and diversity of life around us, from the largest mammals to the tiniest anthropods. Today, however, our scientific knowledge would easily overcome any reasonable presumption of truth on the biblical story of creation.

Centuries ago, when Hume said that we cannot derive an ought from an is, it would be reasonable to presume that morality (or what we ought to do) can only come from the dictates of a Creator who defined right and wrong and bound us with the duty to do what is right. Today, with the achievements in evolutionary biology, while we do not claim to derive moral oughts from the acts that tend directly or indirectly to help perpetuate our genes, we can at least point out that the claim that God is the good is not just an unwarranted presumption but an empty tautology, a matter of arbitrary definition and not a logical conclusion.

Based on the above examples which show what we presently know of some other facts about this world, it would seem more plausible to infer that there is probably a naturalistic explanation for things that seem to require supernatural supposition to make up for our ignorance, such as the beginning of life and of the universe itself.

And while some philosophers might point out that the above arguments presuppose that all truths are scientific truths and all proofs must be empirical proofs, and that such assumptions cannot themselves be proven by the scientific method, it must be pointed out as well that science does not claim to hold a monopoly on truth. However, if one were to presume, science deserves the presumption of veracity because it has consistently been shown to work: cure diseases, predict typhoons and tsunamis, make our lives longer and better. On the other hand, would philosophers board an aircraft whose navigation and safety systems have only been logically proven to exist?

The God question then becomes a matter of presuming the negative until a clear and convincing proof that can survive scientific scrutiny surfaces to defeat such presumption. Of course, one can always presume the existence of God, but such presumption cannot be said to be supported by science. And while science does not claim to know all the answers, it is nevertheless associated with finding answers that can be verified with reasonable certainty.

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Image credit: Jong Atmosfera

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Why Dawkins should not debate with Craig

Richard Dawkins was accused of cowardice when he repeatedly refused to debate the existence of God with the famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig. And while he tried to shrug off such invitations by saying he is too busy to “take on people whose only claim to fame is that they are professional debaters,” I think Dawkins has a good reason to be afraid. Craig will eat Dawkins alive – that is, if the debate has more or less the same structure as the ones in which Craig had previously engaged with other atheists.

In a timed debate where each participant is awarded a point for every argument and counter-argument, Craig will surely win because he can state several arguments for the existence of God within a relatively short time. Now whether these arguments would crumble under critical scrutiny is beside the point; there is simply not enough time for Dawkins to effectively rebut each of these arguments especially with his slow British accent.

But if Dawkins will change his mind and decide to accept Craig’s challenge, I think the debate should be focused on only one of the arguments for God’s existence, say, the cosmological argument or the teleological argument, so that Dawkins could whittle it down and expose the fallacies. More importantly, Dawkins should insist that key terms like ‘evidence’ be clearly defined before agreeing to go into such debate. This was the mistake of Lawrence Krauss in the debate Is there evidence for God? In his opening statement (which was after Craig’s), Krauss said, “Dr. Craig came here to talk about evidence, which is, I take to be, empirical and scientific.” Too late. Craig had already defined ‘evidence’ in such a way that there is evidence for hypothesis H if:

Pr (H | E & B) > Pr (H | B)

Pr = probability; H = a hypothesis; E = some specific evidence; B = our background information

Craig explained:

“At one level it seems to me indisputable that there is evidence for God. To say that there is evidence for some hypothesis is just to say that that hypothesis is more probable given certain facts than would have been without them. It is to say there is evidence to some hypothesis H if the probability of H is greater on the evidence and background information than on the background information alone.”

And Craig argued that there is evidence for God if:

Pr (G | E & B) > Pr (G | B)

Pr = probability; G = God exists; E = some specific evidence; B = our background information

Craig continued:

“It seems to me indisputable that God’s existence is more probable given certain facts like the origin of the universe, the complex order of the universe, the existence of objective moral values and so forth, than it would have been without them.”

While it is clear that Craig’s definition of ‘evidence’ is that of circumstantial evidence and not direct evidence, the debate is simply titled “Is there evidence for God?” and therefore Craig’s victory is inevitable.

Craig is a seasoned debater, and his years of experience have taught him not only to identify the red herrings in his opponents’ arguments but also to get away with a few dishonest tricks of his own. A good example is his debate with Sam Harris, Is Good from God? In his opening speech, Craig flashed a slide with his own version of the title: “Is the Foundation of our Morality Natural or Supernatural?” While he stuck to the issue up to this point, what he did next was nothing short of sleight of hand. Craig said:

“The question before us this evening, then, is, ‘what is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions objectively good or evil, right or wrong?’ In tonight’s debate I’m going to defend two basic contentions:

1. If God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.

2. If God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.

Now notice that these are conditional claims. I shall not be arguing tonight that God exists. Maybe Dr. Harris is right that atheism is true. That wouldn’t affect the truth of my two contentions. All that would follow is that objective moral values and duties would, then, contrary to Dr. Harris, not exist.”

Take note that Craig’s contentions have nothing to do with the debate’s title, Is Good from God? or even with his own subtitle, Is the Foundation of our Morality Natural or Supernatural? Both titles are questions answerable by yes or no, not with conditional claims.

Then after Harris mentioned the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized, Craig rebutted with:

“Both of these, as I explained in my opening, are irrelevant in tonight’s debate because I’m not arguing that God exists. Maybe he’s right; maybe these are insuperable objections to Christianity or to theism. It wouldn’t affect either of my contentions: that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective moral values and duties. So these are red herrings.”

But while he may sound righteously indignant about Harris’ red herrings, the problem with Craig’s contentions is that they are red herrings themselves. The debate’s title question, Is Good from God? can only be answered in the affirmative if God’s existence has been proven in the first place, and yet Craig insists that God’s existence is irrelevant to the debate.

Unfortunately, Harris did not seem to notice this (or if he did he didn’t seem to care enough to point it out), and it’s only after carefully reviewing Craig’s arguments that we can see through his deception.

Now would Dawkins fare better? I doubt it. And when he said that such a debate would look good on Craig’s CV but not on his own, I don’t think it’s because Dawkins finds Craig unworthy of his attention. I think it’s because Dawkins knows he would lose.


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What it Means to be a Nonbeliever

Credit: NASA, WIYN, NOAO, ESA, Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), & T. A. Rector (NRAO)

There are reasons why some people would rather call themselves skeptics or freethinkers instead of atheists, and one is to avoid the not uncommon misconception that atheism automatically means the positive claim that there is no god. While I thought this issue had already been resolved a long time ago considering the multitude of articles and videos posted online explaining that it isn’t necessarily the case, it seems that it hasn’t been explained often enough. People continue not only to assert that that is the only definition of atheism but even to imply that the New Atheists are deliberately trying to redefine the word to suit their purposes when their true position is just play-safe agnosticism.

To settle the issue, let’s look at the definition of atheist in the 1979 edition of The Grolier International Dictionary, of which I happen to have a copy:

atheist – one who denies the existence of God.

The operative word here is denies. Using the same dictionary, let’s see what that word really means:


1. to declare untrue; assert the contrary of; contradict.

2. to refuse to believe; reject.

3. to refuse to recognize or acknowledge; disavow; disown.

If we add “the existence of God” to each of the above definitions, the first one seems to be the most presumed by theists while the atheists usually mean the second and third – that they do not take this particular claim as truth, that they simply do not believe.

And what does it mean to not believe? If a friend told me that last night he dated and slept with a famous actress, say, Angel Locsin or Christine Reyes – or both – but he didn’t even have a scandal video on his phone, I would simply say that I don’t believe him. However, I wouldn’t accuse him of lying because I wasn’t with him or either girl last night and I didn’t have 24-hour surveillance on any of them. No, I could not be certain that he’s not telling the truth. But I just wouldn’t believe him because his story is too incredible that I would provisionally conclude that he did not sleep with either actress – until I see some evidence that he really did. Then and only then would I reassess and perhaps even reformulate my conclusion. Heck, I might even worship him for banging those goddesses.

Going back to the God question, in The Agora, a Facebook group created by our very own John Paraiso, I saw this very amusing comment:

The universality of belief in the existence of God makes the burden of proof to rest upon those who deny the existence of God.

Wow. They demand proof against something that has not been proven in the first place. “Universality of belief” does not necessarily mean that such belief had undergone and passed through skeptical scrutiny.

But sometimes the problem lies with some atheists who, in their passion to express their new-found freedom from religion, go a bit too far not only by saying something inflammatory but by indirectly making assertions that they would have to defend, like this one:













The poster is indirectly saying that Jesus, Allah and Yahweh are imaginary, hence, they do not exist. That is a positive statement that supposedly carries the burden of proof. However, when asked to prove such statement, some atheists would simply say that it is the theist’s job to prove that his particular god exists. That is wrong. A comment posted in Friendly Atheist says it best:

If you say, “There is no god”, you are making a claim that you can’t defend. It is a point of dogma.

If you say, “I haven’t seen enough evidence to believe in god”, you are making a defensible claim. You’ve left open the possibility that new evidence could change your position.

The first one clearly refers to the strong atheist, but the second refers to atheists in general and includes agnostics and skeptics. Unfortunately, to many people the word atheist is associated more closely with the “there is no god” position than with healthy skepticism, no thanks to the overeagerness of some atheists (and no thanks as well to those who say that agnostics are atheists without balls).

Atheists, agnostics, skeptics. The first two are defined by their positions on a certain truth claim; the third focuses more on the method of arriving at either position. All three are the same in one sense: They do not believe.

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A Former Christian’s Letter to an Old Friend

Dear CB,

I regret not being able to see you when you last came home to visit. It’s been almost a decade since you left the country and we had somehow lost touch, and surely I could have spared a few minutes – a few hours, even – to meet with an old friend.

But the reason I didn’t see you had nothing to do with time. I did not come to see you because I figured the topic of Faith would most likely be brought about in our conversation, and I didn’t want to lie to you even as I didn’t want to tell you that I no longer have it.

I remember several years ago there was this Q & A being circulated via email. One of the questions was, “What is most important to you?” As I had expected, you answered “Jesus.” Back then I still considered myself a very spiritual albeit not a very religious person, but I wrote down “Truth.”

I realize I’ve been a truth seeker ever since my childhood days. I remember feeling uncomfortable in Sunday school when the teacher told us that Jesus chose the dumb people for his disciples because the bright ones had too many questions. Whether that was biblically accurate or not is beside the point; she was implying that one should simply follow and not think. But I realized that no matter how I tried, I simply could not not think. And there I was struck by the irony of why our God-given intelligence would be the very thing to hinder us from getting closer to Him. I could not understand why the same God who gave us reason would prohibit us from using it.

Still, I managed to stay on the path and maintain a personal relationship with the Lord throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. You might have noticed, however, that I was the liberal type of Christian who always tried to find a rationale for our beliefs instead of just taking them by blind faith.

One of the things I tried to ponder was the presence of evil and pain in a world supposedly created and cared for by the loving and powerful God. I even opened that up to you and you were able to conveniently answer it with the explanation that we are not omniscient, hence, we cannot fathom God’s purpose in His infinite wisdom.

That explanation kept me going for a few more years, but the Problem of Evil had been an eternal bug up my theistic ass. I lived with cognitive dissonance as I struggled to rationalize gratuitous – unnecessary, unwarranted, and unjustified – suffering as part of God’s divine plan. And I do not mean only human suffering; even before our species walked the earth (and long before Adam and Eve supposedly committed Original Sin), countless animals had already suffered and died, some more excruciatingly than the others, like the caterpillar whose body was being leisurely eaten alive from the inside by a growing wasp larva that would soon emerge from the caterpillar’s empty shell as an adult wasp ready to mate and lay an egg on another unlucky caterpillar, and the cycle continues as the egg hatches into a larva that digs into the caterpillar’s flesh. Now unless there is a Caterpillar Heaven where all their sufferings will be recompensed, it just didn’t make sense to me to suppose that there was actually a loving Creator.

We were both lucky to be born to middle-class families in a civilized society, so gratitude comes naturally to us for all of “God’s blessings, goodness, and mercy.” But we had no idea what it would be like to live in Afghanistan, North Korea, or Africa. Gratuitous suffering exists elsewhere, and we were not constantly aware of them as we focused on our “blessings” like passing an exam when there were children who never had a decent meal or access to medical care. Our pastors have come up with sophisticated theodicies like man’s “free will” and divine punishment, but when I reminded myself that this was supposed to be a loving and all-powerful God we were talking about, I realized that the apologists were running out of excuses for God’s indifference and/or incompetence.

And so I clung back to the assurance that God has a “grand design” which is just beyond our finite minds’ ken. But then I wondered, how do we know that God indeed has a beautiful plan for His most beloved creation? Unfortunately, I only had the Bible to tell me so, the Holy Book we revered as the true Word of God. However, the Bible contains many major contradictions and divinely commissioned atrocities that I either had to skip those verses or suspend my reason in order to continue believing its divine origin. But my biggest problem with the Bible was its lack of authenticity considering its stories were accounts of humans passed from generation to generation without the use of a printing press, and that it was only the Bible that proclaimed itself as the “Word of God.”

When I realized this, every belief I held sacred suddenly became fair game – including my belief in the divinity of Jesus. It also dawned on me how absurd is the notion of God’s ultimate “sacrifice” for the salvation of mankind: God created man imperfectly so God now plans to punish man severely and eternally because of the fatal imperfection that God caused in the first place, but because of God’s “love” for man, God bore an only Son, who was actually God Himself, to be offered as a sacrifice – to Himself – in order to satisfy God’s craving for blood and so that man does not have to suffer God’s eternal wrath as long as he believes in the Son. And even the “sacrifice” is not a sacrifice at all considering it was only about thirty years as a man and less than three days as a “dead” man that an eternal Being had to endure. That’s not even a cent to the world’s richest man, and yet Christians consider it to be the greatest gift.

Now you might shudder at my utter blasphemy and invoke Pascal’s Wager to make me reconsider believing, but all I can say is that the teachings of Christianity contradict those of the two other major religions, Judaism and Islam, and if either of them turns out to be the “true religion” then all Christians will burn in hell for believing and blasphemously proclaiming that Jesus was not just a prophet but God Himself.

And what does it mean to “believe” anyway? Is it something one can force upon himself even if every part of his rational mind screams incredulity? I don’t think so. Belief is not a personal choice; rather, it is the product of knowledge and understanding, both of which are not personal choices either.

And then I was left with the ultimate question: Where did everything come from? For quite some time after I left Christianity I considered myself a deist, believing in a Creator who simply caused the cosmos into existence but never intervened afterwards, allowing the universe to evolve according to the natural laws embodied in it. While I still do not discount the possibility of such Creator to exist or have existed, I am now equally open to possibilities that the universe – or at least the initial singularity from which it expanded – has either existed eternally in some form or another or came from nothing as an accident in nature via quantum fluctuations, negating the need for a creator. But more importantly, I highly doubt that a Being powerful enough to be able to create an entire universe would be that petty or insecure to give a damn if I believed in Him/Her/It.

While I consider myself a skeptic, I do not wish to be called an atheist mainly because of the stigma and misconceptions associated with the word, but for all practical purposes I might as well be an atheist because I no longer believe in an intervening god – loving or otherwise. While it cannot be proven without a doubt that such god does not exist, reason dictates that the Abrahamic God’s existence is very highly unlikely, and so I live my life on the assumption that this life is all there is and that the future of our world and the welfare as well as the suffering of our fellow humans – and of the ‘lower’ animals, or at least the ones we domesticate – rest mostly in our hands.

And so, CB, while you might be aghast with my revelation, I simply cannot bear to live in pretense just to avoid disappointing you. I can no longer force myself to suspend reason for the sake of my faith. As Daniel Dennet said, ‎”There is no future in a sacred myth. Why not? Because of our curiosity. Whatever we hold precious, we cannot protect it from our curiosity, because being who we are, one of the things we deem precious is the truth.”

But if you really believe that God is the Truth, please pray that He will reveal Himself to me in an unmistakable manner and prove me wrong before it’s too late. With all His power and mercy, surely He will make a way.

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