Are atheists right to say that you can’t prove a universal negative?

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

I hear a lot of atheists complaining that they shouldn’t have any burden of proof because it is impossible to prove a universal negative, i.e. – “there is no God”.

Here’s a post from William Lane Craig about it.


The first claim is, ironically, usually found on the lips of atheists, who thereby seek to excuse themselves from bearing any share of the burden of proof in the discussion. Usually, the claim is that a universal negative cannot be proved, and therefore the claim that “There is no God” is unprovable. The second claim is typically given as the reason why a universal negative cannot be proved: no matter how much knowledge you have acquired, there will always be more facts that you do not yet know, and perhaps the exception is among them. So one can never prove that there is no God. Perversely, this is somehow interpreted, not as an admission that atheism is indefensible, but as a demonstration that it is in no need of defense!

Unfortunately, the argument is misconceived on a couple of counts.

First, negative, universally quantified statements can be proved. We do this all the time. When we make statements about “all” or “none,” we are speaking about what is the case with respect to a certain domain. We are saying that all or none of the members of that domain have or has a certain property. If the domain is not too large, I can confidently make universally quantified affirmative and negative statements. For example, I am quite confident that “No U.S. Senator is a Muslim.” Or again, if I have a typical sample of the domain, I can make inductive inferences on the basis of the evidence from the sample to the whole, even if the whole domain is too large for me to canvass; for example, taking as my domain all the microbes on Earth, I can confidently assert, “No microbes have brains.”

Now someone might say that while it is admittedly true that negative, universal statements can sometimes be proven, still the point remains that in the case of God, the domain is too large and our sample too small to come to any negative conclusion. But those who propound this argument seem to think that the way one determines whether God exists is by taking a sort of universal survey to see if anything answering to the description of God exists somewhere out there. There are, however, other ways of coming to a knowledge of negative, universally quantified statements than doing an inductive survey.

For example, we can have knowledge of negative, universally quantified statements on the basis of things’ essential properties; for example, “No water molecules are composed of CO2.” (Even if something looked and behaved just like water but was made of CO2 , it still would not be water but just a look-alike substance.) Or if we could show that a notion is logically impossible, we would know that it does not exist; for example, “There are no married bachelors.” Significantly, many atheists have tried just this route to proving that God does not exist, arguing that the idea of a being which is all-powerful or all-knowing is logically incoherent.

[…]Second, the statement that “God does not exist” is not a universally quantified statement. When the theist asserts that “God exists,” the word “God” is being used as a proper name, not as a common noun. It is not a statement like “Dogs exist” but rather like “Lassie exists.” In order to prove that God does not exist, one need not prove that there are no gods whatsoever. Our interest is in one specific being, not in all the other beings which may have been imagined or worshipped throughout the world. So the claim that “God does not exist” is really a singular claim, like “Sherlock Holmes does not exist” or “Harry Potter does not exist.” No one thinks that negative, singular claims cannot be proven.

So there are two ways to disprove a universal negative. Look where you expect the thing to be evident, and show that the evidence is not there. For example, show evidence that the universe is eternal. You can’t have a Creator if you can show evidence that the universe is eternal. The second way is to show that the concept of God is logically contradictory, e.g. – that the concept of a “timeless person” is self-contradictory. Scholarly atheists try to do this, but this has not filtered down to the rank and file, which is why they still hold to these atheist slogans like “you can’t prove a universal negative”. Of course you can.

And finally, Craig concludes with some good advice:

The bottom line is that we have no choice but to go on the basis of the knowledge and evidence that we do have—just we do in all other affairs of life.

WorldGoneCrazy found a video of William Lane Craig answering the universal negative objection:

Rank and file atheists seem to be very keen on holding out for today’s scientific and historical data to be overturned by Star Trek theories of the future. But the more we study the good, scientific arguments for God’s existence, the harder it is for naturalism to account for it. I am talking about the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, the habitability argument, the origin of life, the origin of phyla, scientific evidence for consciousness and free will (e.g. – mental effort) and so on. Not to mention other arguments like the moral argument and the minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus.

We have to decide on the data we have now. And the data we have now fits better with a theistic worldview than an atheistic worldview. I can imagine all kinds of data that would argue against Christian theism. Finding the bones of Jesus. The universe being eternal. Experimental evidence for the multiverse. A probable naturalistic scenario for the origin of life. Etc. Arguing against Christian theism is not hard, it just takes work. That’s why intelligent and informed atheists like Peter Millican and Austin Dacey can do it, but rank and file atheists want to talk about “I lack a belief in God” and “I can’t prove a universal negative”.

No one is asking atheists to prove anything, just as theists don’t prove anything. We are asking them to give logical arguments with premises that are supported by the evidence. And that’s what we expect theists to do, too. Once we have all the arguments and evidence on both sides, then people can decide for themselves. You don’t have to “prove” anything in a debate, you just have to state your case as persuasively as possible and the other side does the same, then people decide. Simple.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

11 thoughts on “Are atheists right to say that you can’t prove a universal negative?”

  1. I think I disagree that an eternal universe would disprove God. Under a general “God of the philosophers” definition you could have a universe continually proceeding from God. This seemed to be the dominant western view without reference to special revelation.

      1. Technically there are ways in which an eternal universe is compatible with the Biblical account, grammatically.
        And Aristotle and Aquinas argued logically that even an eternal universe would be dependent on God. What I like about their arguments is that they are deductive, not inductive, and apply equally to an eternal and finite universes.
        Conversely, an atheist can agree that the Universe is temporally finite and requires a transcendent cause but that cause has no agency, intelligence, or will. Such as the multiverse.
        I personally dislike the use of the multiverse in the scientific community since most coherent versions require it to be unempirical and thus not science. Further, it doesn’t rise inevitably from the math equations, as is so often advertised, but is an interpretation of an incomplete, unverifiable idea that was extrapolated from one of many interpretations of a verified model. Philosophically, I love the multiverse, since to me, it’s less than a stone throw away from theism. Seriously, by acknowledging the multiverse I feel that that they’ve conceded the vast majority of arguments for God. They’re just not being consistent in taking the arguments the rest of the way to their logical and inevitable conclusion that God Is.

          1. The multiverse theory is not a scientific attempt to explain, it is a desperate metaphysical attempt to explain away.

    1. Schroeder was the guy who first made me realize that it is reasonable, as an engineer, to take the Bible seriously.

  2. It is becoming a common position among atheistic cosmologists that the universe had a beginning. This because of the Radiation Afterglow discovery in 1965. Here is an excellent article discussing this discovery.

    Even atheist god Steven Hawking calls this the most important discovery of the 20th century.

    So what did Penzias and Wilson have to say about their discovery?

    “The best data we have (concerning the Big Bang) are exactly what I would have predicted had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms and the Bible as a whole.” – Arno Penzias

    “Certainly there was something that set it all off…I can’t think of a better theory of the origin of the universe to match Genesis.” – Robert Wilson

    Nobel Prize in Physics 1978 – Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson “for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation”.

    So no, the universe is not eternal.

    1. nawdew14,

      Interesting article. However, it fails to mention, and Stephen Hawkins knows this, the greater discovery of the universe in the 1920s by a Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman and the Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaitre: an expanding universe.

      From ‘Reasonable Faith’ by William Lane Craig, 2008 ed.,:

      ‘The physical evidence for the expansion of the universe comes from what is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and rapidly developing fields of science today: astronomy and astrophysics. Prior to the 1920s, scientists had always assumed that the universe was stationary and eternal. Tremors of the impending earthquake that would topple this traditional cosmology were first felt in 1917, when Albert Einstein made a cosmological application of his newly discovered gravitational theory, the General Theory of Relativity (GR). To his chagrin, Einstein found that GR would not permit an eternal, static model of the universe unless he fudged the equations in order to offset the gravitational effect of matter. As a result Einstein’s universe was balanced on a razor’s edge, and the least perturbation-even the transport of matter from one part of the universe to another-would cause the universe either to implode or expand. By taking this feature of Einstein’s model seriously, Friedman & Lemaitre were able to formulate independently solutions to his equations…………………………………………………….’

      ‘The standard Big Bang model, as the Friedman-Lemaitre model came to be called, thus describes a universe which is not eternal in the past, which came into being a finite time ago. Moreover-and this deserves underscoring-the origin it posits is an absolute origin out of nothing. For not only all matter and energy, but space and time themselves come into being at the initial cosmological singularity. As physicists John Barrow & Frank Tipler emphasize: “At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity.” ‘

      We all know who existed before space & time: God

      I encourage everyone to purchase and read Dr. Craig’s book ‘Reasonable Faith’ In his book, Dr. Craig covers everything!

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