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Unread 06-17-2017, 08:30 AM   #1
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Proving a Negative

I recently entered into a facebook discussion/argument with someone about this.

In context, the guy was saying that while he is pre-disposed to atheism, that you cannot prove a negative, so he wouldn't say that God doesn't exist.

Fair enough. But, it rubbed me the wrong way because, well, as far as I can tell you *can* prove a negative. And, making a large, universal statement that 'logically, scientifically, etc.' you can't prove a negative really annoyed me.

Depending on the circumstances and the thing or event being discussed, it seems to me that you *can* prove that some thing/event doesn't exist/never happened.

It seems to me fairly obvious in philosophy of religion, for instance, that God is taken as a falsifiable entity. Hence the logical problem of evil being a robust argument (even if one doesn't think it holds up it shows that God is falsifiable). Of course, this is highly contingent because we are then talking about a very specific conception of God.


Now, this all seems like it makes sense to me. I feel like I am right, but I am not sure about this.

I know we have people here who know philosophy and logic much better than I do.

Does anyone want to weigh in?

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Unread 06-17-2017, 08:53 AM   #2
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I don't know that I posses the mental acuity to hang in this conversation for very long but I'll contribute when/if I can.

In the case of God I don't believe that you can empirically prove he does/does not exist. However, there are other negatives that can be proven. If I claim that Ford produced an automobile called El Crappo one can do the research and show that no such vehicle has ever existed. Likewise, if I claim I led a successful uprising against the local government of Bradford county on March 14, 2014 one could easily verify whether or not that event did/did not take place.

That might not fall within the scope of what you're talking about but on some level you can definitely prove a thing did not exist.

If I'm way off base just ignore this post.
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Unread 06-17-2017, 03:13 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Uptown Thrunk View Post
I recently entered into a facebook discussion/argument with someone about this.

In context, the guy was saying that while he is pre-disposed to atheism, that you cannot prove a negative, so he wouldn't say that God doesn't exist.

Fair enough. But, it rubbed me the wrong way because, well, as far as I can tell you *can* prove a negative. And, making a large, universal statement that 'logically, scientifically, etc.' you can't prove a negative really annoyed me.
It is not empirically possible to prove a universal negative of the kind "No A's are B's" unless you have complete knowledge that there is not Some A that is not a B. (these are contradictories in Aristotle's square of opposition) Why? All you need is just one case where an A is not a B, and boom! The universal negative is false. That's an empirical claim, but that doesn't mean that someone cannot be entitled to affirm a universal negative. For example, No Humans are on Jupiter. Can't prove it, but I don't need to, because it is so outlandish and historically untenable to even consider the contrary.

But in every day speech, this is enough to "prove" it is false. So we might just be pedantic about the word. In demonstrative contexts, proof is with a guarantee and cannot be false. But we use the word "proof" without such a context.

But outside of the "universal negative", there are plenty of examples of negatives that can be proven or even could be shown extremely probable. I'll give some below.

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Depending on the circumstances and the thing or event being discussed, it seems to me that you *can* prove that some thing/event doesn't exist/never happened.
Yeah. Here's one:

I want to prove that "Jonathan has never been to the UK"

Premise 1: Jonathan has always been in North America (or in their airways) - [Fact]
Premise 2: Jonathan can only be in one location at a time- [Follows from definition of a body]
--------------------------------------
Conclusion: Jonathan has never been away from North America (and their airways)
Premise 3: The UK is outside of North America and its airways
Implication: Jonathan has never been to the UK

That's a negative statement, and I think I just proved it deductively. (demonstrative context)

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It seems to me fairly obvious in philosophy of religion, for instance, that God is taken as a falsifiable entity. Hence the logical problem of evil being a robust argument (even if one doesn't think it holds up it shows that God is falsifiable). Of course, this is highly contingent because we are then talking about a very specific conception of God.
The key is whether there are certain kinds of entities for which no proof could generate a negative. I think this is where you want to go. Some negatives you can't prove, so the statement should be "You can't prove the negative [in this case]" not "a negative [ever]".

True, the notion of God in philosophy of religion is considered a metaphysically contingent entity and/or could possibly not exist. Whether this is in error is ...irrelevant to your question.

But you're right, suppose we were to take a definition for an entity and if that notion leads to a contradiction, then that entity isn't possible. This is one way to falsify something's existence, without any empirical method necessary. For example, if I wanted to know whether any two-dimensional circular squares exist. You could prove the negative that no such objects exist, either because no 2D objects actually exist in the real world (definition of body), or following a 2D abstract space you prove that no such objects are possible to consider coherently.

People have tried to show that God is incoherent when considered thoroughly. This would be a way, like the circular square, to show that God does not exist by definition. Philosophers of religion on either side of the debate tend to think this is a dead-end.

People have tried to show that God is inconsistent with the facts (given our definition of God), as in the case you gave before about the problem of evil. The "logical problem of evil" has basically failed and philosophers of religion tend to think that a different attack is necessary to disprove God (not deductively, but probabilistically). So, the debate has shifted into an argument from Gratuitous Evil, and rebuttals along Skeptical Theism lines are now en vogue (skeptical theism: we should be skeptical in thinking that there are no God-justifying reasons for evil possible; there might be some reason to think God justifies evil or even gratuitous evil, but the reasons are unavailable or not yet discovered)

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Now, this all seems like it makes sense to me. I feel like I am right, but I am not sure about this.

I know we have people here who know philosophy and logic much better than I do.

Does anyone want to weigh in?
To recap: I think being able to prove negatives depend on the domain of discourse, the kind of object, and the standards/methods to be employed. I think you could argue that proving the negative in the case of God is an odd route, and we should expect a deadend.

P.S.
Lee beat me to a lot of this.
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Unread 06-17-2017, 03:26 PM   #4
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Quote:
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Lee beat me to a lot of this.
Your post read MUCH better than mine.

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Unread 06-18-2017, 06:59 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by athanatos View Post
It is not empirically possible to prove a universal negative of the kind "No A's are B's" unless you have complete knowledge that there is not Some A that is not a B. (these are contradictories in Aristotle's square of opposition) Why? All you need is just one case where an A is not a B, and boom! The universal negative is false.
An easier one you can prove:

All humans in the apartment (i.e., their whole bodies) are in the living room
Humans cannot be in multiple rooms at once (with respect to their whole bodies)
The bathroom is a room
-------------------------------------------------
No humans are in the bathroom

Deductive, demonstrated, very limited in scope, but also a universal negative. Yet it is empirical, in that in order establish premise 1 I need to investigate all rooms and not find a human in every case it is possible.
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Unread 06-18-2017, 10:16 PM   #6
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Quote:
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For example, if I wanted to know whether any two-dimensional circular squares exist. You could prove the negative that no such objects exist, either because no 2D objects actually exist in the real world (definition of body), or following a 2D abstract space you prove that no such objects are possible to consider coherently.
Though a cylinder could be considered a circular square (I couldn't resist).

On topic: I think you can prove a negative but only if you have all the evidence. I can tell you that 2 is not 5, and 5 is not 2, and it can be accepted because math. But in philosophy and religion, I think it is more complex.

Side note: I tend to view God as a universal neutral; something that could be, and might well be, but that cannot be empirically proven nor disproven.
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Unread 06-18-2017, 10:22 PM   #7
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Hence the stipulation of a 2D figure :rollseyes: cylinders aren't
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Unread 06-18-2017, 10:44 PM   #8
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Hence the stipulation of a 2D figure :rollseyes: cylinders aren't
Shhh, Academics is no place for logic.
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Unread 06-26-2017, 04:47 AM   #9
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Wow. Days have been flying by and I didn't realise it had been so long since I had posted this!



Thanks a lot for the responses, all of which were very helpful!

I am glad that I was onto the right track, namely that 'proving a negative' is not universally fallacious (as is popular to claim), but is dependent on circumstances, objects, etc.

Athanatos, thanks for clarifying that the logical problem of evil is now exhausted, and that probabilistic routes are being explored.

This leaves room for God to be falsifiable.

This is tangential (and, I wonder if maybe a new thread should be started, especially if anyone wants to discuss this...), but do you think that it is important that God be considered as falsifiable? Or, is falsifiability not really an important possibility for retaining an object of study.

To clarify: I've noted in the past in debates between theists and atheists/agnostics that atheists/agnostics often brush off certain conceptions of God because God becomes unfalsifiable, and according to them a thing needs to be falsifiable to be given any attention in these sorts of debates.

It has been too long since I have thought about this sort of stuff, but I remember thinking this was bollocks in the past. If something *is* it could be that there isn't any possibility of it being falsifiable, right? I don't understand what falsifiability has to do with taking seriously the existence of a thing/event/attribute.

But, it could be that I am constructing their argument incorrectly.
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Unread 06-26-2017, 08:16 AM   #10
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I find myself curious: what makes God unfalsifiable? And is that thing itself unfalsifiable? Can God be proven beyond a doubt? I tend to think not, but I am but a wee pleb.
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Unread 06-26-2017, 01:59 PM   #11
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To be precise, entities traditionally are not true or false, but existence claims could be. There are different analyses about truth and falsity, but if you take a "possible worlds" approach, then you can talk about (non-)existence in the actual world or in a possible world.

The actual world is just one "possible" world, out of the infinite possible configurations/ways the world could be.

Entities in the actual world - exist
Entities not in the actual world - do not exist

Entities in at least one possible world, and not in at least one possible world - contingent existence
Entities in all possible worlds - necessary existence
Entities in no possible worlds - necessary non-existence

Using this approach (a common tack in analytic philosophy), to say that God is falsifiable is equivalent to claiming that we need to investigate whether in the actual world God exists. That is, we from the outset presume that some (at least one) possible world does not obtain God, and we're just trying to find out whether our actual world is one that obtains God or not.
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