The Thinking Atheist on unfalsifiable faith claims

TheThinkingAtheist (aka Seth) gave an excellent lecture at the Oklahoma Freethought Convention last month, on the topic of challenging faith claims made by the religious. The whole thing is worth a listen, but I was particularly impressed with the first sixteen minutes, in which Seth lucidly showed why claims by religious people that God answers prayers and works miracles here on earth do not make any sense – in fact, such claims are unfalsifiable to begin with.

For example, Seth talks about a hypothetical American teenage boy who is the victim of a shooting. After being shot, the boy is rushed to the hospital, where one of several possible scenarios plays out.

  1. Imagine first that the boy makes a full recovery – the bullets missed all of his vital organs, thank God. He’ll need time to heal, but he won’t suffer any permanent damage. “It’s a miracle,” the religious will say. God is good.
  2. Second, imagine instead that one of the bullets had hit the boy’s spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed. He’ll have to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair… but he’s alive! “God must have had more work for him to do on this earth. Praise the Lord he’s still with us.” God is good.
  3. The worst-case scenario is that the boy dies. His wounds were too severe; the doctors couldn’t save him. “God must have been done with him here on this earth. He’s in a better place now, with no violence and no pain. He’s been called home.” God is good.

In each case down the line, the requirements are relaxed for what state of affairs would lead to the conclusion that God is good. By the time you get to the third scenario, you’re confronted with the fact that an innocent boy is dead, and God still gets credit for being good. At this point you have to admit that the statement has no requirements on its being true at all. It’s simply true no matter what happens- and so, what does it even mean to say that God is good? Apparently it means that the world will go on as it does. Your children might get shot in the street. Or they might not.

In his lecture Seth goes through many examples of this kind of thinking, drawn from his experiences as someone who was a fundamentalist Christian for thirty years. It’s very well presented – do check it out!

(via Friendly Atheist)



Filed under Atheism, Freethought, Religion

12 responses to “The Thinking Atheist on unfalsifiable faith claims

  1. “At this point you have to admit that the statement has no requirements on its being true at all. It’s simply true no matter what happens- and so, what does it even mean to say that God is good? Apparently it means that the world will go on as it does. Your children might get shot in the street. Or they might not.”

    Before I watch the video, let me just say something about what I think should be added to that part. Karl Popper himself wrote that when something is none falsifiable, it does not mean that it is untrue, or meaningless. This is related to his criticism of logical positivism. (now I know that is not the point here, but bare with me).

    What we “can” say there, and I think we should add there, is that religious concept of God’s miracles, tests and wrath is none-scientific. This, means that we cannot scientifically (read: realistically) determine if it is probably true or more importantly, not true. Therefore it becomes a matter of just belief, a none-realistic belief, an idealistic one.

    What’s wrong with that? Well, beliefs have consequences, and the problem with idealistic ones is that anyone can “insert” almost anything with them, or Interpret them in any way they want; justifying almost any kind of action. Aside from psycopathic nut bags, who would justify themselves any way, when it comes to “organised” religions, well, the best thing they can do is to justify themselves, right? That’s the first rule of any major institution: Preserve yourself. And the consequences are as follows: War, death, misery, inhumanity, child abuse, Sexisn, Homophobia, honor killing and so on and so forth.

    This turned out longer than I had anticipated!
    I might write a post about it later…

    • I don’t know much about Popper’s work. I tried to read some brief summaries after reading your comment, in hopes that it would elucidate the matter of falsification for me, but it didn’t. So let me respond thusly:

      Given the way religious people claim that god is good, I cannot see how the statement has any meaning. What does it mean to say that god is good? That he prevents injury? No. That he allows people to get injured, but heals their wounds afterwords? Still no. That he allows people to suffer grave and permanent injuries, but protects, at least, their life? No, not that either.

      If the statement “god is good” is consistent with any state of affairs whatsoever, then the statement cannot convey any information at all.

      It should not surprise that these religious statements convey no information, because they aren’t derived from information in the first place. Something good happens, and the theist says “god did this; god is good.” Something bad happens, and the theist says “this could have been worse; god is good.” It’s entirely post hoc. The religious never start from a position of “God is good, therefore we predict this result,” but always from a position of “We got this result, now how can we say that God being good made it happen?” Any post hoc reasoning of this sort is going to result in unfalsifiable statements that, when examined, contain no actual meaning.

      Now, if there’s something Karl Popper’s written that can explain to me how this statement actually has meaning, I’d welcome hearing it.

      • “If the statement “god is good” is consistent with any state of affairs whatsoever, then the statement cannot convey any information at all.”

        I do not disagree, actually something like the statement above is my own comment on another post on Godless freedom’s blog. But let me try and be the devil’s advocate.

        Unfortunately philosophy is like a never ending story of logical back and forth. Popper would have agreed with that statement, but Wittgenstein’s followers (and probably himself) won’t. If you consider “meaning” relative to the structure of language, then that statement “does” have a meaning, of course for religious people.

        Besides, in Epistemological sense “God is good” can be true along with all those events that happened. The problem here is we are looking at the matter in a naturalistic sense, and religion as you know is supernatural.


        What we Can do here?
        Logically, right now I don’t seem to have an answer for this case. If we are a naturalist, then true, that statement would be meaningless. I suppose we can try and tell people naturalistic point of view has many benefits, but still logically we have not proven it is more “true”.

        But we can do something very interesting. We can point out to all the Gods that could have been good: Is it Allah? Is it Odin? Thor? Isis or Osiris (which I personally like a lot)? Zeus (somehow, I doubt that!)? Is it Mithra? ETC, ETC..

        We could even make up new Gods, and nobody can deny them, remember we are talking relativism.


        I wanted to talk more! :D (I actally did have more to say)
        I hope I haven’t talked like a confused kid! I tried to say so many things such a small place.

        Again I will try to make a better post out of my rants! I actually like this subject a lot…

  2. Oh crap! I wrote “bare” with me?! Realy?!
    Plz bear with me on that! :D

    • Don’t worry- you won’t see me getting upset over a few innocuous typos here. In fact, I’ve never understood the concern so many people on intellectual blogs seem to pay to them. Commenters will rush to correct their typos, as you did, as if they’d committed an actual offense. Really, who cares? If someone makes a typo, I don’t assume they don’t know how to spell – I assume it was a typo. And if they legitimately don’t know how to spell a word… again, who cares?

  3. Pingback: My Thoughts on Falsifiability: Meaning, Truth and Information | Heresy

  4. The reason Popper wouldn’t call those scenarios cases of unfalsifiable propositions is that they’re not meant to be explanations in the first place. People don’t offer these sorts of sentiments because they’re trying to explain something; they’re offering solace to fellow mourners.

    When you go to a funeral and declare, “He was a good man,” or “I know we’ll all come through this,” or “Let’s try to keep our spirits up by remembering the good times,” or “At least his suffering is over,” do you think these statements are falsifiable? Does “good man” have an empirical extension? How can you know that “we’ll all come through it” without knowing the future?

    So who’s really the silly person: the one predicts the future at funerals or the one who plucks out the sort of things people say at funerals and analyzes their truth values? I know my answer.

  5. The example actually seems to be an application (or misapplication, as it were) of probability theory and/or Bayes Theorem. Simply put, an explanation that can be used to explain any and all outcomes really explains nothing at all. The strength of an explanation has more to do with what scenarios it excludes more than what it can include.

    Popper’s falsificationism can actually be expressed in probability theory terms, which means it is mathematically valid.

  6. Pingback: Something horrible happened… so thank God | The Floating Lantern

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