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“Well, you can’t prove that god doesn’t exist”.

Uh, yes I can.

I’m sure many of you have heard this “argument” before. Here’s a three-pronged destruction of this attempt to dodge the question that no theist can answer (“What proof do you have?”). The last nail in the coffin is saved for last – I’m sure many of you have heard the first two points but not many will have heard the last.

1. Why are you asking me to disprove your theory? That’s a burden of proof fallacy. You came up with the idea, you prove it. You don’t see me running around screaming at people “Prove I can’t fly!”. When a scientist comes up with a new theory, it’s backed by years of research, correlation with existing years of research, multiple experimentation and is then peer reviewed. When a theist has some theory his only proof is “well, you can’t prove it’s wrong”.

Well guess what? That’s literally irrational behaviour. For a refresher, see my post about Rationalism but the short of it is that rational behaviour is based on mathematical likelihood. It’s highly likely that jumping into lava will kill you, therefore it is irrational to believe otherwise. In terms of the burden of proof, the burden lies with whoever is making the extraordinary claim. As Carl Sagan once said:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

What does this mean? Imagine I claim there is a tree in my backyard. Would a rational person contest my claim (at his own expense)? No, because even if I’m lying it’s highly likely that there is a tree in my backyard and there is little reason why I would lie about it – therefore not much proof is needed for me to assert my claim. Now, what if I claimed that I had a cat riding a unicorn shooting rainbow lasers in my backyard? Would you require proof before believing that? Apparently theists wouldn’t.

2. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because something hasn’t been proven to not exist, doesn’t therefore mean that it does. That’s a logical fallacy called false dichotomy. It’s also stupid – because you can think up myriad things that can’t be proven not to exist. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a crowd favourite. Russel’s Teapot is another – you can’t prove that there isn’t a teapot orbiting Jupiter but there’s no rational cause for you to believe that in the first place.

Sometimes this is used to defend religion – just because there is no evidence of god doesn’t mean that god doesn’t exist. Well, science doesn’t work in absolutes but there is literally no rational reason for you to believe in god. However, I can indeed prove that god (or at least the definition of god as is understood by the major religions today) does not exist, which makes it doubly irrational to believe.

3. There can never be any proof of god. Why? Let’s take a look at the foundation of proof. As with the Rationalism movement, mathematics is a fundamental concept for proof. 1+1=2 regardless of what you apply it to, what you believe in and what you experience with your senses. Therefore, it follows that maths is the absolute proof – if it can exist, it can be described mathematically in some way or form. Mind you, not everything that is mathematically reconcilable exists (or at least not all of them have been proven). Maths is just the large boundary separating the possible from the impossible – just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s real; but if it’s impossible then it’s definitely not real.

The problem? You cannot mathematically describe god because that would be akin to removing his omnipotence. If the singularity is a point of infinite mass and infinite gravity, how do you describe a god that created this infinity? 2 x infinity? Infinity squared? It’s still infinity. Are you thus claiming that god is equal in power to a singularity? God, by definition, breaks all universal laws and defies all mathematics. It is therefore impossible to provide any proof of god – and by extension god cannot rationally exist. It is an empty concept that has lingered since ancient times for small minds to placate themselves in the absence of knowledge.

Many theists acknowledge this problem and have said that it is impossible to find any evidence of god in the universe because the act of finding such evidence would mean that god is bound by some sort of parameters allowing us to find his hand in things – hence removing his omnipotence. Fair enough, at least these people acknowledge that there can never be any evidence. The question then remains, if you’ve accepted that there is absolutely no evidence in existence to support your faith, why do you still blindly follow?

This is not so much a logical principle as a demonstration of why something is illogical. Some of you may have heard of Pascal’s Wager (or Gambit). Again, I try to keep religious views out of this blog so keep in mind this isn’t proof of why god doesn’t exist – it’s just proof of why Pascal’s Wager is logically flawed.

So, basically Pascal’s Wager is a thought experiment that paved the way for decision theory (based on probability). The premise is that god may or may not exist and the conclusion is that based on a risk-return probability, you are better off believing that god does exist. The thought experiment roughly follows this process:

  1. “God is, or He is not”
  2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. According to reason, you can defend either of the propositions.
  4. You must wager. (It’s not optional.)
  5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

Ok, so why is this wrong? First, it is based on a false dichotomy fallacy. Which god? People often forget, due to the self-absorbed nature of humanity, that there is more to the world than just what they believe in. Let’s not forget that there are any number of gods that are believed in equally strongly by their respective theists.

Second, if we factor in the existence of multiple gods, we must also factor in the potential punishment of following the wrong god. The first commandment makes it pretty clear that at least some gods don’t like it when you choose the wrong one. Additionally, the game is no longer a wager between two options. You have multiple options, with each option – except atheism – promising reward and punishment.

By now, we’ve pretty much destroyed step one of Pascal’s Wager. If you’re keeping up, you’ll release we’ve destroyed step two as well (it is no longer a 50/50 chance – heads or tails is no longer valid). But wait, there’s more! It was never an even chance to begin with. Recall two other logical principles I’ve mentioned, Occam’s Razor and Rationalism. A deity is the ultimate extreme of unlikeliness based on Occam’s Razor (because a god is inexplicable and has no beginning), and based on this, we can use rationalism to conclude that it is not reasonable to consider god as a “truth”. Remembering that rationalism deals with a priori knowledge and probability of likelihood, this is not to say that a god doesn’t exist, it’s just saying that the chances of a god existing are lower. That leaves us with atheism having a statistical edge (no solid numbers, it could be a lot or a little based on your personal beliefs, but atheism definitely has an advantage in terms of statistical accuracy, whether large or little). So not only is it not “heads or tails” any more, it’s far from it.

Now, considering that you are wagering for reward, we must ask ourselves, will this behaviour be met with reward? That is to say, if you choose to follow a religion in the hopes of winning some divine lottery, even if that religion was correct, will that god reward you considering your motive? Probably not. Again, statistical speculation based on scripture; it is often said that man cannot ever understand the mind of god, so there is a chance that god will reward you for betting on him, but given that such an action would conflict with the concepts of morality and ethics taught by religion, it would be a pretty self destructive process.

We’re at the end now – and given the logical reasons put forth above, we have reshaped the playing field of this game:

  1. A god or many gods or no gods may exist.
  2. A game is being played … where there are at least 20 options (based on a list of the major religious groups in this world), and the atheism option has at least a slightly better probability of being correct (exact amount debatable).
  3. According to reason, you can defend any of the at least 20 propositions.
  4. You must wager. (It’s not optional).
  5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering in a certain god or lack of god. In wagering for the existence of one of at least 20 gods, you may gain some reward from one god (in the unlikely event that god rewards you for your motive being to bet on him) if you are correct, and will receive punishment from at least 20 gods if you are incorrect. Further, you have a lower chance of being correct than if you pick the atheism proposition.
  6. Wager then based on your risk aversion (financial principle that basically means how much risk you are willing to take on an investment). However, risk aversion assumes rational investors that tradeoff risk for return. A rational investor will not pick a higher risk option (punishment from 20 gods with a lower chance of being correct is pretty risky) if the return does not offset taking on such risk (reward from 1 god; it depends what you think the reward will be then, and whether or not you will even receive this reward). Hence, betting on anything besides atheism (the safe bet), would be considered irrational both from a financial perspective, a statistician’s perspective and a logician’s perspective.

Again, it really depends. If somehow, you think it’s better to bet for one of the religions, it’s really up to you. The thought experiment is just pointing out that you’re better off betting on atheism (given the parameters of Pascal’s Wager). Again, I’m not trying to force any beliefs on anyone, nor am I even an atheist. I simply wanted to break down Pascal’s Wager so the topic of atheism was inevitable. Keep in mind, there are more parameters than just the ones put forth by Pascal’s Wager, so even by disproving it, you can still believe in god. However, this lack of encompassing parameters is the very same reason why Pascal’s Wager fails.

Apparently, an “Atheist’s Wager” also exists. I only bothered to take a quick look at it and it is more of an alternative to Pascal’s Wager with a broader scope concluding that choosing atheism is better than choosing a religion. I just want to differentiate the two topics – this post is pulling apart Pascal’s Wager and using it to demonstrate that Pascal is in fact wrong. The Atheist’s Wager is a thought experiment that follows a similar process to Pascal’s Wager. The difference here is that I am starting from Pascal’s Wager to tear it down, whereas the Atheist’s Wager seems to be a more accurate alternative (it can be a standalone).

I’m adding a new category devoted specifically to logic because it’s something too many people lack these days. Logical thinking is something that will help you in all aspects of life and is a prerequisite to be taken seriously on any academic matters. Now I’ve mentioned logical fallacies before but those are things to avoid doing. This one is the opposite – a logical surety if you will.

Lex parsimoniae, otherwise known as Occam’s/Okham’s Razor is a logical principle coined by English logician (what a cool job), theologian and Franciscan friar Father William d’Ockham. It is often mistakenly interpreted as “the simplest explanation is the best explanation”, but in reality it asserts that competing hypotheses should be settled by selecting the one that makes the fewest assumptions, then adding complexity to that hypotheses in a way that I consider analogous to “building a tower from the ground up”. Obviously, this is axiomatic – it should make sense now that I’ve explained it to you. If you’re going to construct a logical argument, it makes more sense if your starting point is a fact – otherwise you’re basing your entire argument on assumptions that may not be true.

Incidentally, I was reminded of this logical principle when one of my Science and Religion lectures mentioned Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy on god to be incorrect because he addressed the issue of god from “humankind upwards instead of from god downwards”. Obviously, I completely disagreed with that point, mainly due to Occam’s razor. It does not make sense to address the issue of god from god downwards, because that makes the assumption of god a prerequisite for the existence of god, which is logically flawed.

As always, I try to keep this blog religion free so remember, I’m not trying to say god doesn’t exist here. I’m merely pointing out that in this specific example, it’s logically flawed to say you should start building your tower from the top down.

So, recently scientists reported the discovery of a particle with observable effects likening it to the Higgs Boson. That’s a very complex way of saying “they think they found the Higgs Boson”. Some of you may not think this is a big deal. To those people, I say “I don’t believe you understand the gravity of this matter”. That’s the first of some of the Higgs jokes popping up.

Anyway, this is a huge scientific breakthrough and it pretty much shoots the whole neutrino affair out of the water. Why is that? Well, there was a lot more hype over the neutrino potentially surpassing light speed because geeks and opportunists started an avalanche of ill-informed statements. The most prominent of these was the whole “faster than light” travel fiasco. I wrote an article on the neutrino for a course at uni but I can’t be bothered finding it so I’ll sum up quickly why this is a stupid idea: the neutrino is also known as the “ghost particle” because it can travel through matter with minimal to no interaction. If something with that kind of amazing ability can’t surpass light speed (or was in doubt of surpassing light speed at the time that these faster than light dreams started multiplying) then what hope do humans have? Let’s put this in perspective. Suppose the neutrino did manage to break the light speed barrier. Well, you might say humans will use that technology to develop super-light speed travel. Errrrrrr. Wrong. What are you going to do, make a spaceship out of neutrinos? Let me remind you that neutrinos do not interact with matter. You’ll have a better chance at resolving the atheist-theist war than ever making even a seat out of neutrinos. There’s a lot more to the neutrino than that, and maybe I’ll put the information up here some time, but for now, rest easy knowing that we’ll always be stuck at sub-light speeds.

I sort of went off at a tangent here. The point was that the neutrino buzz was a fad; there was never really any substance to it. This Higgs boson ordeal, however, is mind boggling. I mean that literally. Even with my reasonable grasp of science, it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around. I asked my mom and stepfather (both PhD physicists who were top of their field in Australia before retirement) for a bit of clarification and arrived at the understanding I have now. I’m going to give a brief explanation of the Higgs Boson and Higgs field in the following paragraphs; if these do not interest you, you may skip, but that leaves you with a bigger question – what are you doing reading this if you’re not interested in science?

Ok, so let’s start with the Higgs field. Why? Because the Higgs Boson is a particle associated with the Higgs field in the same way a photon is associated with an electromagnetic field. The difference here is that the Higgs field permeates the universe. This is a bit hard to understand without an analogy. Let’s say that the universe is submerged within a tank of water – that is, all the planets and stars and galaxies are objects within this tank. The water would be the fabric of time and space – as well as the Higgs field. It is everywhere, in more ways than one. For example, you can bend the fabric of space time (with our analogy, that would be a ripple in the water). Whilst this may shorten the “distance” between two points, the ripple does not eliminate the space time in between – it merely distorts it.

So now that we’ve determined that the Higgs field pretty much encompasses the entirety of the universe (Einstein theorised a similar space time fabric, though I forget the exact name), what you need to know is that particles travelling through the Higgs field, and thus interacting with it, are affected by the Higgs  Boson. The Higgs Boson is a class of particle whose category is known as a Boson. It’s special because it transfers mass to certain elementary particles and thus explains why some particles have mass and others do not. Without mass, there would be no gravity and thus no universe – which is why you’ll hear that the Higgs Boson “holds the universe together”. You’ll also hear it called the “god particle” but Higgs dislikes that name – originally he wanted it called the “goddamn particle” but his editor thought it would be more attention grabbing if it was named the “god particle”.

Anyway, if we delve a little deeper (and further outside my comfort zone), we can attempt to explain how this mass is transferred. Most particles have a positive or negative, non-integer spin. This means that at each energy level of the particle, only one type of spin can exist for the orbiting electron. This is known as the Pauli exclusion principle. The difference with the Higgs Boson is that it can have zero spin or integer spins, thus allowing it to exist alongside another spinning electron at any given energy level. This essentially means that it can exist in multiple states (you may have heard of this quantum mechanics term before, especially since the popularisation of Schrodinger’s Cat). Because the Higgs Boson can exist where no other normal particle should, it has the potential to transfer mass (this is actually my own speculation, don’t quote me in any academic papers).

Anyway, that’s about as far into it as I’ll get. The crux of the matter is, the simple model has been completed. Scientists used this model for 50 years with no proof that the Higgs Boson existed, and now, finally, we have that proof. In short, we’ve discovered something that was fundamental to not only our creation, but everything we see around us in the universe.

The title of this post also mentions world powers, but I’ve rambled on a bit now. I’ll just leave with a quick paraphrasing of the well known Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. “On the day that we Americans like to tell ourselves that we’re the best (July 4), Europe reminds us how far behind we’ve fallen in science (Higgs Boson)”. Dr. Tyson has a deep concern that scientific power will shift away from the US, and wishes to reignite his country’s passion for science. I agree with his forecast; due to the nature of brilliant minds, the next generations of scientists will go to Europe instead of the US for their scientific goals, due to the infrastructure Europe can offer (Large Hadron Collider vs. the now closed Enrico Fermi reactor in the US). A large part of the US’s success is due to the infrastructure and opportunity available within the country, which attracted immigrants and geniuses together. As Dr. Tyson also points out, the greatest scientific achievements made by the US were made by immigrants (a German scientist started the US space program, for instance), and if their infrastructure falls behind, inevitably, their science will too. This will have a widespread effect that will eventually see the US removed as the world superpower (among other factors).

Well, those are my thoughts for the day. Forgive me for any errors in my scientific talk – as I said, the details of quantum physics elude me and I haven’t had the time to research the Higgs Boson as much as I did for the neutrino. Let’s just leave with a picture of the second (and perhaps more prominent) reason why Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is so famous now.

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