Social Question

Aethelwine's avatar

How can you say something does or does not exist if you don't have proof?

Asked by Aethelwine (42958points) October 20th, 2010

Prove to me God does/does not exist.

Prove to me Ghosts do/don’t exist.

Can you?

fyi- I don’t believe in either, but I can’t say they don’t exist.

I’m an observer full of opinions. Forgive me if I don’t respond. Just curious.

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49 Answers

crisw's avatar

We cannot be definitive, perhaps, but we can look at the evidence. We cannot say for a certainty that Santa Claus, leprechauns, or an invisible pink unicorn do not exist. But we have no compelling evidence to make us believe that they do.

The same methods can be applied to ghosts and gods.

nikipedia's avatar

The short answer is: you can’t. Or at least not with absolutely certainty.

I think what you are really asking is: how do you prove something? And “prove” is such a loaded word. It can mean so many different things.

I can prove a statement false, but it is much harder to prove something to be true. Suppose my friend says to me, “All men are douchebags.” If I can find a single man who is not a douchebag, I have proven that statement false. But I cannot prove her statement to be true unless I determine the douchebag status of every man who lives, has ever lived, and will ever live. That is much trickier.

So I think “proof” is a heavy burden. Maybe too heavy to be useful.

I am a scientist. When we do experiments, we never “prove” anything true. Instead, we use statistics to figure out how likely it is that we’re wrong about a population based on some sample we have. That doesn’t prove anything. But it is the very best way of knowing about the world that we have, at the moment.

KatawaGrey's avatar

The best way I can think to describe it is this:

You are looking at the sky and saying it is blue.
I am looking at the car and saying it is red.
You tell me the I am wrong because the sky is blue.
I tell you that you are wrong because the car is red.
In short, we are having two different conversations.

I cannot prove to you that God any god, not just the Christian one is real because you are asking from a scientific standpoint. However, God is not governed by science. God is governed by something else entirely. From a purely scientific standpoint, you cannot prove that God does exist, but neither can you prove that God does not exist. Also, I would like to point out that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive. The existence of science does not disprove the existence of God and if it were to be proved scientifically that God existed, it would not render all science moot.

Also, it has been in my experience that if someone says,“Prove to me that x exists,” that they have already made up they’re mind about it’s existence.

ETpro's avatar

I’m with you. You can only state the reasonable probability of a thing existing. Since I can’t even prove I exist outside a mental image or a Matrix like world, I can’t really prove that the keyboard I am typing on exists. It could be a phantom in my mind. The probability is high it does exist—and that’s good enough for me to sit here and type out and answer on it.

God is a more difficult proof. Like accepting that the keyboard exists, I accept that the Universe exists, and that a remarkable number of physical constants about it have been discovered. Science leads some to an ever stronger conviction that no God (creator) exists, but it has led me in an opposite direction.

I see that there are a mountain of physical constants that all had to be incredibly fine-tuned for a Universe to actually form. Take any one, like the Planck Constant, or the Weak or Strong Nuclear Force, or the Electromagnetic Force, or Gravity and skew then just a tiny bit one way or the other, and we either get a Universe that never coalesces into matter after the Big Bang, or one where gravity overwhelms the other forces and everything collapses into a massive black hole.

Likewise, the fine tuning required for a galaxy that is capable of supporting life as we know it. We are in one of a tiny collection of known galaxies that have a habitable zone where high-level intelligent life would ever have long enough to evolve. Not only that, but we are in that habitable zone in an arm of our galaxy that is free from routine crossings with other arms, in a unique local region with no quasars or super-massive stars which would destroy budding life by a supernova.

We are blessed with a just-right star and it has a solar system with a planet that has enough iron core to create a magnetic field to protect us from the solar wind. Earth has the right mass to hold an atmosphere and water. It is just the right distance from the sun. It has a moon that’s perfectly tuned to stabilize its orbit and tilt so the seasons don’t vary wildly. It has the right collection of Gas Giants in the right postilions to sweep up most asteroids and comets before they impact us. Even the late heavy bombardment caused by Jupiter’s effect on the early asteroid belt set the stage for life here, and moved the minimal asteroid belt that was left to a safe distance from Earth.

If that’s all coincidence, then it is more wondrous than if it is the work of intelligence beyond our understanding. That said, I cannot believe that the God presented in the Bible makes sense. No intelligence perfect enough to create this Universe and its laws would need my worship, and condemn most of creation to eternal hell for not picking the exactly right way to worship or not being fervent enough about it.

I don’t know what to make of it all. I just know I am in awe of it.

DominicX's avatar

You can’t. We are talking about things that exist on another plane of existence that humans can’t comprehend. It’s pre-supposed that their existence cannot be proven/dis-proven.

downtide's avatar

It’s scientifically impossible to prove that something does not exist, because it’s impossible to observe the entire universe at once. The burden of proof therefore belongs to the person who believes a thing exists.

Frenchfry's avatar

I say let it be. If someone wants to believe in Big Foot, let them believe in Big Foot. It does not effect my life in anyway. Is it hurting anyone? That goes with God, Aliens, and ghosts. Now with the God thing though. Taking lives , and killing people in the name of their God is wrong. That should be stopped. For goodness sake , starting a war over God is another . That is where I feel believing in God takes a turn for the worse.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Fact from fiction, truth from diction. I believe the existence of God (to me at least) can be proven by looking at science and physics. There is no experiment you can do to prove it, you can’t say find God in an atom smasher, but you can look at existing physics from a logical point.

Take the Moon and the other planets, science has come up with an explanation how it works and they can even exploit it but if you really think about it how does the Moon circle the earth, it don’t slow down and crash into us, or speed up and fly off?

Everything man has needed to survive has always been here, electricity, or the ways to create it has always been here even before man knew how to harness it, same with radio waves, radiation, solar, oil, etc. The elements that humans most need are conveniently abundant, air, water, wood.

Some of the best examples are the bat, bees, and birds. When you have a swarm of birds that can do this → and not crash all into each other. Not only can the brightest minds at I.M.T., VT, etc not be able to make a robot bird, they could never make a whole flock that could whirl around each other like that with out a massive mid-air collision. Then you take the bee, by what is known of workings of physics the bee should not be able to fly; but it does. Just look at what we have or the wonders about us that science can’t explain and there you have God.

Ghost I say do not exist because once the body dies the soul moves on. About the only way ghost would exist if they were a latent overlap of matter, atoms etc from another dimension on the same time continuum.

meiosis's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central “Then you take the bee, by what is known of workings of physics the bee should not be able to fly; but it does.”

This is absolute nonsense

flutherother's avatar

And given proof, how do you know that this proof really is proof?

Aethelwine's avatar

You guys are great. Thank you.

JustmeAman's avatar

I would ask and question what constitutes proof to you? If you see it with your eyes? If you can touch it and communicate with it? If you are there in the moment and you experience it? By using all your senses and having had a unique experience? When does one believe beyond doubt or actually know for sure? Now once you have established that can you convince another about it? Not likely.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

You can’t.Without proof,it’s just speculation,theory or….crazy talk ;)

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Very few things are subject to proof. In fact I can think of only a handful outside the field of mathematics. So how can you say something does or does not exist if there is no proof, or a proof is unavailable with current knowledge? We make approximations based on whatever we do have. There is no absolute metaphysical proof that other people exist, yet they are a constant part of our experience and we know of no inconsistencies in our theory of humans, so we assume that they probably exist.

There is no absolute proof that the Earth was once in the depths of an ice age, but we are certain that it once happened because of the evidence left behind. We can see what types of animals lived in which regions in which time period, and infer the climate they would have lived in. We can measure gas saturations in polar ice cores. We can see the scars on the landscape carved out by old glaciers, and infer that the region was once covered in ice.

There is no absolute proof that there are (or aren’t) gods, but we have no evidence of any where near the strength we require to believe other things. For some reason theists like to say they believe in god(s) because “I can feel his presence”, or “he has helped me in the past”. Both of these are unfalisifiable, and so are merely speculation as to what caused whatever benefit was gained by that person. As well as this distinct lack of evidence, god hypotheses tend to be so fantastic and unlike anything else we know that we cannot even judge them to be potentially consistent with reality.
However there had to be a source of the idea of deities, and we must account for this. Either gods made humans, humans made gods, or humans and gods arose independently and then discovered each other. Evolution and abiogenesis, while not inconsistent with the influence of gods, do not require the intervention of deities to be successful processes. Without evidence to the contrary, the probability of gods’ intervention is minute, simply because it isn’t necessary. Humans and gods may well have arisen independently, but that would make any right to rule merely an expression of “might is right”, and strip the gods of the sovereign right they are supposed to have to demand our unquestioning obedience. That leaves the final option, that humans created gods. Gods typically involve many human attributes, such as jealousy, hate, megalomania, libido, and sometimes love and justice. On average, gods seem to be neither benevolent or worthy of respect though, and each god seems to reflect the cultural ideals of the civilisation in which they were worshipped. This means that the most likely explanation of gods is that they were created by humans, although the reasons for this are debatable.

So to assert something does or does not exist in the absence of compelling evidence or proof, we need an estimation of probabilities considering the evidence we do have. It is an effective processes in most spheres, but for some reason some people seem to think religion is exempt from such analysis. I disagree.

iamthemob's avatar

The burden of proof therefore belongs to the person who believes a thing exists.

It’s that statement that always seems to be the one that gets the argument into trouble. Any claim about the existence of god is, at this point, unfalsifiable. To assign a burden of proof to that claim alone is only going to be argumentative.

Move onto the falsifiable stuff and leave god alone, I say. Prove to me that homosexuality is a sin. Prove to me that live begins at conception, etc. Then we start discussing the things that might actually help us develop and get past not what is “The God Delusion” but what I like to think of “The God Hot-Mess.”

downtide's avatar

@ETpro That’s my whole point. Nobody can prove it.

iamthemob's avatar

And no one can prove the opposite. At the basic level, it’s a pointless debate.

Blondesjon's avatar

I am a firm believer that if Stone Cold said so, it is most certainly a fact.

proof is for pussies

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@meiosis And the one where those smart guys at M.I.T. created a swarm of robotic birds that can fly in a foul cloud and not crash all into themselves can be found where?

Pepshort's avatar

Is there a common definition of ‘proof’ that all here are working with? We can say that we ‘know’ something to be true, even though it may not have a degree of certainty approaching mathematical proof. For example, ‘a preponderance of evidence’ or ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ are criteria used in a court of law. What standard of ‘proof’ does the questioner require?

downtide's avatar

For me, it would be physical evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

@Hypocrisy_Central Those smart guys haven’t built a swarm of robotic birds yet because no-one can afford the massive expense of building them. But you can bet they’ve done it in computer simulations already. They even do it for movie special effects.

meiosis's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central ” Just look at what we have or the wonders about us that science can’t explain and there you have God.”

If this is the case, then god has been shrinking rapidly over the past few centuries.

Pepshort's avatar

@downtide Physical evidence beyond a reasonable doubt is….reasonable—when you’re attempting to prove the existence of something that is physical. However, in an attempt to prove the existence of something that isn’t physical, such as the existence of God, what criterion would be needed?

KatawaGrey's avatar

@Pepshort: You have said what I’ve been trying to say for a long time, only you said it much more intelliently and succinctly than I ever did.

iamthemob's avatar

Indeed @KatawaGrey – I would extend it, though, by adding that there’s nothing to say the existence of god can’t be physically proven – we’re just at such an infantile level of our understanding of and ability to observe the universe that there’s no way for us to determine how to do so.

However, because of this, I also think that the existence of god (1) shouldn’t be subject to debate or (2) if it must be be relegated to a metaphysical debate as opposed to one about physical reality.

downtide's avatar

@Pepshort does anything that is not physical exist? I’m not sure that it does. Even abstract things like emotions can be measured physically. I guess you could say that the experience of God can be measured the same way, for instance in those experiencing a religious epiphany, but then that relegates god to the level of nothing more than an emotion.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@downtide: Perhaps God can be measured physically, but we lack the ability to measure it physically. I am reminded of Democritus who postulated the existence of atoms but was smacked down due to a lack of proof. Atoms did not spring into existence once we were able to measure them, they simply became scientifically irrefutable. Remember, the whole point of science is to learn more.

iamthemob's avatar

@downtide – not really, considering that we can experience emotions, and therefore measurements of emotions can be supplemented by our subjective experience of them. But that would mean something clear and specific only to the individual, but we can generally determine when anger is happening…so a physical reading of an emotion like “anger” doesn’t really give us a universal description of what everyone experiences when they are “angry” although it can give us a better understanding what is physically at work when one is getting “angry.”

Any physical reading of what “god” is, therefore, would require a more complete understanding of what he is already – we can claim that certain physical measurements are “anger” because we can already see when a person is “angry.” Because we don’t know when god is being god, we can’t determine when he, she, it, or whatever is being measured.

downtide's avatar

@iamthemob And until those questions can be resolved, and god can be measured in some scientific way, I am not able to believe that god exists.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@downtide: Honestly, I’m surprised. I understand not believing in any kind of god but simply doing so because science hasn’t proved the existence of one? Less than a hundred years ago, you would have been institutionalized for wanting to be male because no one believed that it wasn’t just some mental condition. Now, we have proof that a person’s brain most closely resembles that of the sex they feel like rather than the sex they were born. Before that, science hadn’t proved that black people weren’t inferior and indeed there were actual scientific studies that “proved” that black people were inferior.

DominicX's avatar


That’s one of my main problems as well. People say “God can’t be proven because he exists on an alternate plane of existence that we can’t comprehend” and I say do we even know if an “alternate plane of existence” exists? There seem to be some people convinced that the supernatural can never be proven and there seem to be others that think it might be in time. Either way, nothing is proving its existence now.

downtide's avatar

@KatawaGrey I don;t know how to explain it any other way. If there was scientific proof of god I would have to believe it in that case. But there isn’t. And I’m not smart enough to explain why I think the way I do.

iamthemob's avatar

@downtide – I completely support, and much of the time share, that position. However, it doesn’t make it more reasonable, at a most essential level, than the contrary.

“I believe in god, even though there is no proof of god, because the amazing apparent perfection of existence seems too much for chance.”

“I don’t believe in god, because we have been unable to measure god’s physical existence, regardless of the fact that we have barely scratched the surface of how the physical universe actually works, or can be observed.”

For me, the only irrational assumptions come as an outgrowth of those basic assertions. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, so determining one as “better” than the other is a fruitless endeavor. Both can be improperly used to support irrational assertions…and admittedly, I think the religious are more inclined to use belief in god to do so…but that doesn’t comment on the reason of the base belief.

Until either side is proven right or wrong, both should be left alone. ;-)

KatawaGrey's avatar

@downtide: I don’t mean to call you stupid I certainly hope it didn’t seem that way but it just bugs me when someone claiming to believe in science absolutely makes a claim that something doesn’t exist because science hasn’t proved it. Science exists in order to prove new things. Galileo was called crazy by the scientists of his time and now we revere him as a huge figure in astronomy. I guess what I’m trying to say that closing one’s mind in the name of science defeats the point of science.

DominicX's avatar


I don’t think saying “science hasn’t proved it” is the same as saying “science will never prove it”. Why should I believe in something that has no evidence for its existence? The whole point of “belief” and “faith” is that it’s not about empirical evidence. Science deals with empirical evidence.

Again, who says that anything non-physical even exists in the first place?

iamthemob's avatar

I think @KatawaGrey and I are in the same camp on this one. There seems to be a general assumption that a belief in god requires some irrational leap in thought, when it may just as well be a recognition that we have a limited perception of the natural world at this point.

It’s most rightly noted, I think, when people state that god is “supernatural” as if we had a complete idea of what was contained in the natural world.

@DominicX – no one is saying that you should believe in it. But many use the fact that we haven’t yet gained evidence about it, or evidence that we have that disproves certain specific religious assertions, as proof against the existence of god. When there is no evidence in either direction, and no way to determine if we will be able to gain some, you can be scientific and go to the naturalistic null hypothesis point, or you can relegate the discussions of god’s existence to the metaphysical. In my opinion, when you demand proof and then say lack of proof makes you more reasonable for not believing (relying on the scientific method and the null hypothesis) requires you (you generally) to gloss over the significant limitations of current science and also positions you as if people who believe in god in some form have to prove themselves reasonable to you.

It just is an unproductive conversation, I think. Why try to debate it when we haven’t the tools to really do so? Move onto the next point.

DominicX's avatar


I didn’t say lack of evidence proves God doesn’t exist. There is no “proof” in either direction. Maybe I’m not understanding @downtide‘s position, but I am not the type of person who claims to know God doesn’t exist. I don’t know that. I think it’s unlikely, but I am open to there some day being evidence for God’s existence. Science hasn’t proven it. It may in the future, who knows…

iamthemob's avatar

@DominicX – that’s why I made the “you” general (although admittedly not soon enough in the sentence).

No assumptions about what you think, know, believe, etc. – just a commentary on the type that I think makes the conversation problematic for no good reason. In fact, if I assumed anything, it was that you are on the more “reasonable” from my perspective (cheekiness intended) side of the conversation. ;-)

downtide's avatar

@KatawaGrey I didn’t “absolutely maks a claim that something doesn’t exist because science hasn’t proved it.”. In fact if you read my earlier posts I claimed quite the oppossite. It’s impossible to prove scientifically that something doesn’t exist, or at least it will remain so until such time as it’s possible to observe the entire universe simultaneously. All I actually claimed was, when it’s physically proven then I will believe it, untill then, I can’t. The same goes for anything else that can’t be proven: fairies, ghosts, unicorns, telepathy, everything. I believe what evidence shows me is true.

iamthemob's avatar

@downtide – again, fairies and unicorns in comparison to god. le sigh.

downtide's avatar

@everyone this is getting beyond my intellectual capacity so I’m going to have to bow out of this thread here.

Pepshort's avatar

Wonderful thread—you guys (and gals) are great. Let me add an additional point to the mix. I believe that there’s a distinction to be made between ‘faith’, ‘belief’, and ‘knowledge’, and each of those terms have to be carefully defined—particularly when talking about the metaphysical. Why? Because if not, when I say, as an example, that I ‘know’ something, you might say that I only ‘believe’ it, or only have ‘faith’ that it’s true. Knowledg’ implies a certainty based upon evidence that is objective. For example, I can say ‘I know X shot Y, because there was a video recording and two eyewitnesses.’ Faith implies acceptance, despite the absence of evidence, because we desire to believe something as true. For example, I can say, ‘I have faith that there was an actual tooth fairy who put a quarter under my pillow when I was young, each time I lost a tooth.’ Belie’ is somewhere in between—some evidence exists, but evidence that isn’t convincing enough to move acceptance into the realm of ‘knowledge’. For example, I could say, ‘I’ve lended money to you twice, and you paid me back. I believe you’ll pay me back if I lend to you again.’

iamthemob's avatar

@Pepshort – interesting – there are three categories though that aren’t covered…(1) accepting something even though there is neither proof for or against it, (2) accepting something even though there is both proof for and against it, and (3) accepting something even though there is proof against it.

I think both (1) and (2) are properly in the category of “belief” whereas (3) is faith, or perhaps something different (and I might say worse).

Where are you on these?

Pepshort's avatar

@iamthemob Excellent questions. In your categories 1 & 2, those would be examples of faith. In the presence of contradictory evidence (1) and in the absence of any evidence whatsoever (2), acceptance is clearly an expression of a desire to believe that something is true. That’s why the term ‘leap’ is associated with ‘faith’. We don’t say, ‘he took a leap of knowledge or belief’ if someone says something plausible, based on evidence. Your third example is also clearly an act of faith—perhaps simultaneously categorized as….foolishness :)

Pepshort's avatar

@downtide You said “does anything that is not physical exist? I’m not sure that it does”

I believe that many non-physical things can be said to exist; truth, integrity, love, virtue, compassion, sincerity and spirituality…among others.

iamthemob's avatar

@Pepshort – interesting. I find it problematic to talk about “faith” in the context of an assertion for which there is neither evidence for or against. This is mostly because people seem to disassociate faith from reason. I find the assertion “There is a god” as reasonable as “There is no god” while there is neither evidence for or against either assertion. Personally, I rest on “Sure, there might be a god” which is not an assertion. And I don’t think resting on the null hypothesis works with questions that have large metaphysical implications. So taking that into account, I think that we would have to say “I have faith there is a god” as well as “I have faith there is no god.”

Then, I think you start an argument. ;-)

mattbrowne's avatar

Some positives and some negatives can’t be proved.

While others can.

A universal Turing machine exists.
A program solving the halting problem does not exists.
A perpetual motion machine does not exist.

Blondesjon's avatar

<— a non-perpetual motion machine.

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