An epistemological review by – Heather Spoonheim

In the case against the existence of gods I would like to submit the Gettier Problem. Essentially the Gettier Problem postulates that even if claimed knowledge turns out to be true, it may not actually constitute knowledge. As an example, consider a variation of Case 1 of the Gettier Problem:

Tamara works in an office where her friend, Bob Romanchuck, has applied for a job. While walking past the Human Resources office, she hears two administrators talking about how they intend to hire Bob Romanchuck for the new position. Now Tamara leaves, believing that Bob Romanchuck is going to get the job, and tells her friend that he is about to be hired. As it turns out, however, there were two Bob Romanchucks who applied for the job and it was the other Bob Romanchuck who got hired.

This example varies a great deal from Gettier's 10 coins but only in that rather than possessing an equal number of coins the applicants possess equal names. In this case, although (a) Tamara believed that a man named Bob Romanchuck would get the job, (b) a man named Bob Romanchuck did in fact get the job, and (c) Tamara had good reason for her belief – she did not in fact have knowledge and, in point of fact, she actually had false knowledge.

Consider then that a god exists: for instance, Anu. Anu is a sky-god, the god of heaven, lord of constellations, king of gods, spirits and demons, and dwells in the highest heavenly regions. He also has the power to judge those who have committed crimes. Should irrefutable proof be uncovered of Anu’s existence, Christians and Muslims might instantly claim that this is their beloved Yahweh or Allah but they would in fact be irrefutably wrong. Although Anu possesses similar traits to Yahweh or Allah, he is neither Yahweh nor Allah and sent neither Jesus nor Mohammed to earth to guide mankind to salvation.

In this instance, both Christianity and Islam would be wrong, even though they believed in a god and a god did in fact turn out to exist. Most importantly, however, their epistemology was flawed because the stories of Yahweh and Allah are known to be fabricated in the minds of men and there is no good reason to believe in their existence.

It is not enough, therefore, to simply abstract the concept of a god and say that perhaps there is some conscious prime mover and that conscious prime mover constitutes a god. Without the third criterion of knowledge being met – (c) the believer must have good reason for their belief – the purported knowledge is not knowledge at all, such as illustrated in Case 2 of the Gettier Problem. Without falsifiable evidence for a conscious prime mover, there is no good reason for such a belief and it is therefore not knowledge.

Furthermore, even though a conscious prime mover may in fact exist, there is no way of tying that conscious prime mover to the belief of such held by any deist. Without a specific claim of justified knowledge there is no justification in asserting that the sheer coincidence of the true case of unjustified knowledge constitutes any specific thing, least of all a ‘god’ – whatever that word even means at this point in time. Like the Tamara of the aforementioned example, the deist has nothing more than knowledge of a label/name that, even in the most charitable of circumstances, may be shared with a circumstance that turns out to be true.

To this end, one cannot rule out the possibility that a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away there was a young humanoid named Luke Skywalker who looked exactly like Mark Hamill. The existence of such a being, however, does not affirm that the fiction of George Lucas was, in fact, non-fiction. The creation of the mind of George Lucas remains a fiction regardless of the literal existence of a being that fits the description of one of his fabricated characters – the actual Luke Skywalker, regardless of how similar his life might have been to George Lucas’ Luke Skywalker, was not and is not George Lucas’ Luke Skywalker.

Considering all of these things and given that there is no evidence for the existence of gods, any and all claims of the existence of gods do not constitute knowledge and no such gods exist. Even if some evidence is one day discovered to prove the existence of a mighty being, creator of all things, that being must then and there be evaluated to determine whether or not it is in fact a god. Until such a time, no gods can possibly be said to exist or even postulated to exist in the form of anything one can rationally define as knowledge. There are no gods.

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Comment by Heather Spoonheim on June 25, 2011 at 12:51am

Well, considering Gettier, I would say that the word has 0 meaning, and that qualifies as a good philosophical 'proof' that 'gods do not exist'/'gods have no basis in reality'.  On the one hand, further obfuscation of the word could actually be the path to a non-theistic world.  On the other hand, if people don't actively eject the concept from our language we could end up with a paradox of 'god' meaning anything you want it to mean (we're sort of there already), making theism impossible to eradicate.

Comment by Luke Scientiae on August 17, 2011 at 11:28pm

On the philosophical aspects of the post:


To my knowledge (pardon the pun!), no one has "solved" the Gettier problem, least of all by attaching additional conditions that have to be satisfied before something can be considered "knowledge".

Knowledge appears to be routinely used, especially in this context, as though it were a thing that existed "out there", a reality of some kind, a real category and then what people do when they worry about whether something is knowledge or not is they really worry about whether their beliefs (being sufficiently justified, true, etc...) really "are" knowledge of this kind. This presupposes a sort of metaphysics and an ontology of knowledge that I'm yet to be convinced is very helpful.

Of the Gettier problem examples I've heard to date, they all seem to have any one or more of 1) a hidden unquestioned premise; 2) incorporate a non-sequitur and/or 3) could be considered probabilistically.

For example, the "cow in field" case has the farmer unquestioningly accept that a black and white blob in the distance is good evidence for a cow and Case II has the subject make an illogical inference.

The third case, probability, is the one that I think reveals the use of "knowledge" in all this to be a bit pointless. Since the original definition of knowledge for our purposes begins with "justified true belief" we have to ask what "justified" means. Here it's a sliding scale of how satisfied you are that the evidence for your belief is compelling. The farmer saw a black and white blob and found it compelling when perhaps he shouldn't have; same with the hologram example ("It's Matt, no it's a hologram"). In fact, I think that the unquestioned premise and probability are related. Assuming that a hologram is in fact your friend is to implicitly accept the premise "I am not being tricked by a hologram" when in fact it's just improbable (but not impossible) that you're being tricked.

As long as philosophers insist on trying to determine if something "is" or "is not" knowledge I think these problems will continue coming. There is no absolute certainty in anything because all you can say is that what you think is true is accepted on the basis of some probability judgements somewhere along the way.

When you take away having to consider knowledge as some mysterious juju that thing can qualify to be or not, then Gettier's Case II (just for example) becomes simple. Smith believes Jones will get the job and is certain Jones has 10 coins in his pocket. He therefore believes "the man who gets the job will have 10 coins in his pocket". Whether this belief is justified depends on your purposes and also to what extend Smith bothered to justify the belief (how high the probability is Jones will get the job (what's that based on?) and how does he come to believe there are 10 coins in Jones' pocket (what is THAT based on?). Jones doesn't get the job; Smith does. So it seems Smith is wrong, except that it turns out that just by chance Smith also had 10 coins in his pocket. Was Smith right? Yes, but only by chance. It was a fluke. Did he "know" a man with 10 coins was going to get the job? Well, that's irrelevant and it depends what you mean by "justified" to begin with and if you accept knowledge as something that exists. I don't see the need. A man got the job and he had 10 coins in his pocket. By chance, Smith guessed right about that. So what.

It's clear that "knowledge" as a short-hand for "strong belief" can be useful, as it can when using it to mean "proven" (as long as we remember that proofs have conditions also with associated probabilities). When I say "I know I have a stone in my pocket" I mean to say that what I think I have a very strong reason to think that I have a stone in my pocket, for example because I just checked 10 seconds ago, and whenever that's happened before it's always been the case, and I checked with a geologist and

Comment by Luke Scientiae on August 18, 2011 at 12:32am

Ok. I think the comment got cut off for being too long and I lost about 20% of it. The rest of it just reiterated the role of probabilities in the "justified" part and therefore that no certain knowledge existed.

Insofar as the Gettier critique undermines the existence of "knowledge" as a JTB category, then fine, we can't know God exists in the sense described in the post. I also liked the Skywalker analogy. If we know gods on Earth are man-made then even if they do exist and are identical to the one's we invented here, and it is shown that this is so, it still can't be claimed that we "know" them to exist at the moment, however strongly "justified" our belief in them is currently. All because of Gettier.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on August 18, 2011 at 6:24am

Thanks for the feed back and further insight into Gettier.  I wrote this blog rather quickly while the Skywalker concept was in my mind because I didn't want to get distracted and forget about it (common with me).  Anyway, I think it could be better written as a very strong philosophical proof that various gods do not exist - of course based on the premise that they were man-made, which there is often a great deal of evidence to support.  It's just part of a collection I've been working on for an anti-Kalam response to the likes of William Lane Craig. 

Comment by Luke Scientiae on August 18, 2011 at 11:21am

Hi Heather,

Apologies again for the v. long Gettier post. If the premise is that God is man-made, then I'm not sure you need Gettier, who can only tell you that we don't and cannot know that God exists. For a debunking of Kalam and Craig, see my blog post here:



Comment by Heather Spoonheim on August 18, 2011 at 3:43pm

That's a good vid.  The difficulty I have in debating theists is that even as I strip away the impossible parts of their scripture, they just retort with "yes, well that was just some figurative language, from the minds of men who could not comprehend fully the message of my god - but my god is real!"


The trouble is that even after you debunk their text, they then simply say that the 'core' of it is true because it led them to this god they 'know'.  That can be frustrating as hell because it can often take a dozen or more pages of exchanges to get them to finally admit that their holy book is bunk.  When I get that far with them, however, my plan is to start using the Luke Skywalker problem of knowledge as a proof that they don't know any gods - I just need to get it better written in a good debate format.


I've trapped a few theists recently with getting them to define 'nothing' and 'everything' but they just stop responding after I show them they don't even have a basis for those two concepts.  Anyway, it's just a fun hobby for me.

Comment by Luke Scientiae on August 18, 2011 at 3:48pm

The Luke Skywalker thing could work if you formulate it simply enough that it becomes immediately accessible to theists you debate. Good luck!

The video covers lots of stuff, but one of the simplest to grasp is Craig's inconsistent relationship to "infinity". One the one hand Craig doesn't like it, on the other he bases his definitions on it. It's ridiculous. He's a crank, not an intellectual.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on August 18, 2011 at 3:58pm

Well his argument reduces to "nothing can be infinite except my imaginary friend."  It's nothing more than special pleading without even establishing a basis for a special instance.

Comment by Luke Scientiae on August 18, 2011 at 4:02pm

By the way, perhaps you can popularize this petition. It applies only to UK citizen or residents, but I think it's worth making people aware of it.

The idea is to get the UK govt to ditch creationism and force all schools to teach evolution in science class, whether the school is a "free school" or not.

I also have a link to the petition on my blog:

I haven't really had time to explore Think Atheist enough to know how to spread the word most effectively. Hoping you know. Thanks.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on August 18, 2011 at 4:08pm

I would post a discussion with examples of creationism being taught in UK schools, including a link to the petition.  I had no idea creationism was being taught in any UK schools.  They don't even teach it in Catholic schools in Canada other than as parable.


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