Something has been bothering me for years - since I heard the news of a billboard proclaiming, "There is probably no god". "What's with this 'probably'?", I thought. "Of course there is no God. The idea of God is just silly." Why do they believe they need a caveat, "probably"?

As I understand it, the "uncertainty" about God stems from a philosophical proposition - one cannot PROVE the non-existence of [something]. One can only state for certain that evidence has not yet been unearthed which supports the existence of [something].

Similarly no evidence has yet been discovered to support the existence of an anti-gravity material. However the scientific literature discussing gravity does not include a universal disclaimer, "as of this writing this material contained herein assumes that there is probably no such thing as anti-gravity". Why, then, is such a disclaimer deemed necessary when discussing something considerably less likely to exist - namely God.

Were I to hold a pen in front of me supported by nothing (but the buoyancy of the atmosphere), I feel comfortable in stating that, if I release my grip, the pen will fall. Despite the "possibility" that some heretofore undiscovered force may intervene, or that a comet which has escaped the notice of all astronomers arrives in that instant and it disrupts Earth's gravitational field causing the pen to hit the ceiling, I need not say, the pen will probably fall. If making a simple assertion about a fact (the pen will fall) requires that I take into account every infinitesimal chance of any possibility - no matter how remote, then one simply cannot make ANY statement about ANYTHING (without employing silly word games). What then is the point of communication.

I am as certain about (the non-existence of) God as I am that the pen will fall. Why shouldn't I be?

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The point is making a statement about the REAL state of the universe (positive or negative - doesn't really matter).

Karl Popper would disagree with you. He wanted all science to adhere to the principle of falsifiability for the reasons Davis has stated. That is why using Popper's method you set up a null hypothesis which is the one you attempt to refute, not a hypothesis that you attempt to prove. So here the null hypothesis is "There is no God". If God were ever to decide to get off his ass and present himself (ha!) we have refuted this and the investigation is over. Until then, every piece of evidence only offers a greater statistical likelihood that we can accept the null hypothesis. Proof of the null hypothesis (as opposed to its rejection) is not possible under this methodology.

I UNDERSTAND the metaphysical arguments. I'm talking about the WORDS we use the describe our universe. 

Back to my original post, I can, do, and will say that, if I pick up a pen then release it, it WILL fall. I am simply contending that there is no GOOD reason for me to add the word "probably". In any other realm no one would argue that I can make statements of fact - even in the realm of science. Science simply ASSUMES that anything is possible - include 14-legged mammals - given evidence to support it. That assumption need not accompany every single statement of fact. But ONLY in the realm of God, and only among atheists (it seems), my statement of fact is challenged, not with evidence, but with a claim of metaphysical purity.

This is mixing positive with negative claims.

If you pick up a pen and drop it repeatedly throughout your life you can confidently make a claim that dropped pens will fall. That is a positive claim (though it is never 100% certain it is a scientific truth).

That's totally different to saying "There are no pens anywhere that can defy gravity". A claim like this can be criticised from many angles...and not just philosophical ones. It isn't only in the realm of God that you should be careful with negative claims. Scientists are very careful about making negative claims (say there are no venemous Mammals...turns out there are). Teachers are careful about teaching negative claims. Doctors are especially careful about negative claims. It's not only about God and ghosts and goblins.

And at a practical level Simon has already given a good reason for not making absolute certain claims in some contexts. Telling a devout Christian that "There absolutely is no God" isn't always the best way to start a practical discussion".

I agree with you that using "probably" is over the top. But it is reasonable to add "almost certainly" or something similar in most cases where you make absolute negative claims.

Mike, part of the problem with discussing the topic is its emotional weight. The reason people get caught up in pedantically defining terms and invoking the (correct) view that you cannot certainly disprove God is that they care so much. It is also why when you use an example like Russell's teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or Davis' colourful T-Rexs on the moon!) they don't understand why it's the same. They don't have any emotional investment in those ludicrous things so of course you can say they don't exist. No need for philosophical wranglings there!

This is also one of the reasons why such disclaimers are used. It is a distinct ploy to soften the emotional blow and therefore try and have the message more likely to be accepted (in the long-term). We are emotional beings whether we like it or not and I fear that people will not be talked out of their gods with rational arguments alone.

I see it as the opposite. A believer will see "There is PROBABLY no God" as a position that lacks any conviction - a position they (being complertely certain about God) would not even bother to challenge. 

On the other hand, "There IS no God" would provoke a challenge for proof. This could be followed by, "OK, let's look at the evidence.". 

Wouldn't this be more likely to progress to a deconversion than a toothless equivocation? 

I understand where you're coming from with "toothless equivocation". I think people like Dawkins and Harris understand this too. A polarizing view (e.g. There IS no God) will definitely receive more attention than a more measured approach.

On the other hand, "There IS no God" would provoke a challenge for proof. This could be followed by, "OK, let's look at the evidence.".

This would work if people genuinely wanted to examine the evidence and arrive at the truth. For example, this would work beautifully with robots. However, I have found people to be like those knots you can tie that get stronger as you tug at them. The harder you pull, the more they become entrenched in their position. My experience of theists is the only time they open up about religion is when you concede that you understand something about why they hold the views they do. Part of that is conceding that your own position is not absolutely certain.

Why do we have to play this game? Because we are fighting against thousands of years of tradition in addition to the ideologies themselves. If someone came up with the same silly stories today as are in the Bible, we would not have to jump through all these hoops to argue with them. But, again, people are emotionally invested in it and to untie the knot you have to gently work at it - you cannot pull sharply and expect it to fall apart.

I have found people to be like those knots

I would be inclined to pull out the scissors labelled, "God is silly".

In my opinion the new atheist movement has been successful mostly due to its very existence. It is, believe it or not, actually possible to doubt the very existence of God. Old atheists (from when I was young) existed to fill the tiny gaps in the religiosity charts. Nowadays atheists are standing up to propogate. They are making a mark because they are shocking the population into serious consideration. Sure, scissors may be "cheating", but I don't believe we should be addressing our arguments solely to those who are well versed in the disciplines of Philosophy. Believers do not believe either because of statistical analyses or philosophical correctness. They have FAITH - pure unthinking, unswerving, engrained, emotional faith. The right tool, I believe, is confrontation. "Think about it! How CAN you actually believe such silliness?"

"Probably" (and the other permutations of uncertainty) allows God to exist.

You're right that in some ways the new atheist movement has been a success. I think that some people who were either agnostic or had never given it much thought read books like the God Delusion because they are controversial or fashionable and do actually end up leaning more toward an atheist viewpoint. This does count as a success and I'm pleased about it.

There are others, however, who read books like that and become more resolute in their faith. Not everyone responds to the same approach. Sometimes the scissors can be useful (and more fun) but sometimes unhelpful.

Why do we have to play this game?

We don't have to play this game; some of us choose to play it.

I'll pass. I have other shit to do.

The word “probably” is misleading because it can have different interpretations. When debating theists, especially the more fundamental types, I usually have to explain the following points to them.

While I “know” there are no gods, I am forced to admit that for the sake of philosophical debate I must take the position that there “probably” are no gods because I cannot prove a negative. At least not without side tracking the debate with lessons in logical or inductive fallacies or “reductio ad adsurdum”.

I am not going to allow the burden of proof to be shifted to me. I will keep asking for evidence to support their positive assertion of a particular god existing in actuality.

What I mean by “there probably is no god” is that due to the complete absence of evidence to the contrary, I am unable to think otherwise. It is not a matter of me not wanting to believe or that I am in denial of anything, it is just that I have never been offered any evidence to suggest my conclusion is wrong. This is where the theist will respond and say that “not everything can be proven”. However I have not asked for proof. All I have ever asked for is to be shown a tiny shred of evidence to allow me to reconsider. If they can, I tell them that I will become a believer.

They will start offering their “proofs” as evidence. However these always turn out to be arguments for the existence of god and are not evidence of anything. All these arguments can and have been rebuffed. Bear in mind that the Bible itself is a claim and not a proof of anything.

It is likely that the faith card will now be played and the line “we are all entitled to our opinions” is rolled out. For me the debate is over because they are now arguing based on their belief in their faith and are no longer trying to offer anything tangible for me to consider (because they have nothing). They assume that their equal right to have their opinion means that both our opinions carry equal weight. This is how the theist sees the word “probably”. They have assumed a 50/50 probability that god exists.

I will argue that my “opinion” is arrived at by critically considering all the arguments for god and rejecting them because there is NO evidence, not a morsel of it to suggest I should believe otherwise. I will explain to them that all of the reasons they believe in god are based entirely upon having faith in subjective statements. They think that giving me reasons for why they believe in their god is the same as giving me evidence for their god’s existence.

I have made no assumptions or taken anything for granted in reaching my conclusion (I hope not). The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In a formal logical argument it cannot be proven that no gods exists without engaging in a false dichotomy. Something is not necessarily true that it has not been proven to be false. We can use Occam’s razor and some inductive reasoning  to deduce that there “probably” is no god. Generally all that people of faith have done is to presuppose the existence of their god based on what other people have told them.

So I only use the word “probably” for the sake of correct (formal) argumentation.  Apart from that minor point I positively assert that there are no gods. I will continue to do so until some evidence suggests otherwise.

Now for a pot of tea.

Let us pray

So I only use the word “probably” for the sake of correct (formal) argumentation

Do you think that campaigns using "probably" are more likely to move someone versed in formal argumentation or allow sanctuary to everyday believers?

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