Question ... How can I convince my friend there is no God?

Hi everyone,

I recently joined an interesting online forum called Quora, where people pose questions about any topics you may have an interest in, and anyone else can answer the question. There have been some very interesting responses from people answering questions about NDE's and such, which I would have no access to except through such a question and answer forum.

Any how, someone posted this question ... How can I convince my friend there is no God?

At first I was irked by the presumptuousness of the question, and then I was intrigued, so I decided to respond. Below is my response, and I am sharing it, as I am very interested to see what the members of the Skeptiko community think and feel about this topic.

Question: How can I convince my friend there is no god?
Answer: You can't

The truth is you can’t, and neither can he convince you that God exists.
Before I explain why you can’t, I need to set the stage as it were.
We all of us, find ourselves in a very bizarre predicament. I am going to use the analogy of a prisoner in a prison cell to try and help explain this. Plato used this idea in his “allegory of the cave”.

We are a lot like prisoners. Our prison at first glance gives us the illusion of enjoying a great deal of freedom, and we very naturally and mistakenly believe ourselves to be free. You see, it is like an open prison, and our prison cell is what we call our body. The eyes being the windows through which we look out onto a myriad of phenomena. A veritable cacophony, or a symphony of phenomena, depending on how we look at it, some of it pleasant, some not so pleasant, all utterly convincing.

If we are attracted to or repelled by the phenomena we are presented with, we can through a complex and intricate system of levers and pulleys (neurons, synapses, chemical switches and levers) move our prison cell closer to or further away from the phenomena at hand, and interact with it through little holes in the cell walls called “senses”. So responsive is our prison cell, so fluid the controls, so immersive the senses, and so agile and instantaneous its movement, that we feel at one with this prison cell of ours (a lot like the wearer of glasses forgets he is wearing them). We naturally conclude that the prison cell is us, due to the effortless and complete control we have over it.

Some have argued that it is this very belief that entraps us so completely. As Goethe said, “None are more hopelessly enslaved (imprisoned) than those who falsely believe themselves to be free”, and on so many levels, I have found this to be true, but I digress.

Now, the reason a prison metaphor fits so well is that by employing systematic logic and deductive reasoning, we may conclude that the thing I call me, the “I”, is not the same as or cannot be identified with any of the individual parts of my body. Neither am I necessarily the sum total of these body parts, but something else entirely. Ultimately, this line of reasoning results in the unavoidable, and perhaps for some, the uncomfortable conclusion, that I am not my body.

At the end of this reasoning, one finds that one is able to say “I am embodied”, but not that “I am my body”. Are you, for example, your toenails? What about your toe? Foot? Leg? Etc.

This disconcerting line of reasoning goes something like this. We may systematically and deductively move through each part of the body asking ourselves “am I my arm?” - “No I am not my arm”, “am I my leg”, no I am not my leg”, “am I my eyes” “ears, nose, head, brain, etc” and each time we must after some deliberation answer that we are not exclusively any of these parts.

You might think that you can easily assert that “I am my brain”, however, it is not so easy to do. People have had all sorts of bits missing or removed from their brains, and that sense of “I” that we call us (the prisoner in this analogy) remains as strong as ever.
You might attempt to get philosophical this point, and assert that you are your memories (which you might also assert are contingent upon the brain), however once again, using the same systematic logic, you can ask, “am I this memory, or that memory, if I remove this or that memory does that also remove me etc … each time concluding you are not exclusively this or that.

Without my trying to convince you of the validity or veracity of this line of reasoning, try it for your self. If you are both honest and open, the results are guaranteed to surprise you.

I feel that this process of investigation has an elegance about it that it shares with mathematics. Instead of using the abstraction of number to measure the world, we are using the conscious sense of self in a binary fashion – 1 or 0, me or not me, self or not self, on or off, black or white. The outcome of all these inquiries is always rather disconcertingly 0, not me, not self. I have not been able, and far greater minds than mine have not been able through this method to identify the thing which I can say fundamentally is me – and without which I would not exist.

Now, I am absolutely certain that the results thrown up by this type of inquiry will have a lot of committed materialists feeling uncomfortable. It is important to point out though that the results of this experiment do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that we have a soul. It is simply saying that we can systematically and logically deduce that we cannot identify our “self” (I, me, us), in any part of our body, or even the sum total of these body parts, the physical body as a whole(or indeed even our thoughts, feelings and memories, sometimes called the mental body).

What this logic reveals then, is that we can know not what we are, but crucially we can know only that which we are not. We can only discover what we are not!

It is this very insightful line of reasoning and method of inquiry which resulted in the Buddha and subsequently the followers of Buddhism, from refraining to assert or deny a human soul, and by extension a God. We may have a soul, and we may not, there may be a God and there may not, but we are in no position to know with the faculties and tools currently available to us.

The Buddhists refer to this as anatta, ‘not self’, literally the inability to identify or pin down a definite self. The self is utterly elusive. We know through experience we exist, indeed the very act of investigation denotes a self who is the investigator, but our investigations will never lead to that sought after self, it will only uncover the things which are not self. Hence the Buddhist notion of the emptiness of the self.

So here we find ourselves, imprisoned in a body, not knowing how we got here, where we are going, and most importantly who or what we really are.

Now, if each of us is a prisoner of our body, although our bodies exist and move freely about the open prison, we cannot visit each other's cells and see what it is like in there.

We cannot escape our prison cell even for a second (although one person whom I trust implicitly told me he had experienced an out of body episode one night - do with this info what you will, again it doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that a soul exists, at least not in the traditional Abrahamic religion’s sense of the word).

Escaping the cell then equates to death, and when a prisoner escapes, they seldom write to their former prison mates (family and friends), so no one really knows if they perished along with the destruction of the prison cell, or if they made it to somewhere more pleasant.

The allegorical scene of the prisoner that I have painted does quite nicely sum up the human condition. We are each in our own little cells, looking out of windows and holes in the cell walls to interact with our world, and utterly unable to see the world from anyone else's cell window. We are totally isolated, calling to each other through the bars of our cell.

One of the things we esteem most highly, and rightly so, is our experience. We can be told a thousand times about a taste, sensation, feeling or event and never really know it, but one experience of the thing in question and suddenly it all becomes clear. Experience is our most trusted teacher, and we esteem it above all other forms of knowledge. The tool of science, as an objective and systematic method of exploring and investigating the world outside of our cells, is very powerful too and is probably the next best thing. It reliably teaches us much about the shared open prison we inhabit and it minimises the distortion that can arise from our differing viewpoints and different experiences through the filters of our different cell windows.

It relies on observable evidence and formulates theories to try and explain what we observe. For example, the theory of gravity is our best explanation for the observed phenomena of things falling to the ground, and it makes reliable predictions about what will happen if we do such and such a thing. Likewise, the theory of evolution, theory of relativity etc. The reason I say this here is that many people mistakenly believe that science gives us facts. It may shock you to learn that it doesn’t. It gives us theories (which try to explain the observed facts).

E.g. The apple fell to the ground is an observed and repeatable fact, and gravity is the theory which we feel best explains how and why it fell. Dinosaur bones are an observed fact, and evolution is a powerful theory which explains their existence and makes predictions about what else we are likely to find if evolution is true.

It is important to state this as it is so common for people to utterly misunderstand science, and believe that science has revealed new indisputable facts about the world, when in fact it has done nothing of the sort. It is simply a method for both observing certain facts, and then attempting to find successful ways to explain those facts through theory.

No matter how many facts we observe, no matter how successful our theories become at explaining these facts, we will never reach a stage where I can know for example, what it feels like to be in your cell. I can never know what it feels like to be you. I cannot bottle your thoughts and memories, or their significance and meaning to you. I cannot leave my cell, and enter yours. The question of God’s existence is a lot like this. God it seems, is also beyond the scope of science to prove or disprove.

We like to think that science has revealed the truth to us (facts), but it has not. It has allowed us to make more successful predictions about the world, and to devise ingenious tools from our discoveries, but it has done relatively little to reach the prisoner in his cell (consciousness in the human being). This problem for science is known as the hard problem of consciousness. Why are we having a conscious experience at all? We can measure and stimulate infinite numbers of neurons, synapses and axons and have a myriad of results, thus learning a tremendous amount about the brain, but not the self.

Our enquiries have revealed a remarkably adaptive and malleable brain, but ultimately a mechanical brain which follows a set of rules. Try as they might, neuroscientists have not been able to explain why any of this gives rise to a “conscious experience”, a sense of I. It may well be that the brain does not give rise to a sense of self and that this sense of self exists independently of brain states, but the mainstream will not allow itself to speculate along these lines. Doing so is a kind of heresy, punishable by exile from the community.

This is sad really because there are no real limits to the questions that we can investigate using the scientific method. The limits exist only in the biases of the scientific community, and this is a tremendous handicap when it comes to the unfettered investigation of the world and reality we find ourselves in. At the moment it seems there is only support for scientific enquiry if the results do not challenge the established paradigm.

So, getting back to the question of God, you can by now see that finding any evidence of God scientifically will probably prove to be just as hard as finding a scientific explanation for why or how consciousness exists. If science cannot even break into the prison cell to investigate the prisoner, how on earth is it going to be able to reach the prison warden outside of the prison? There is more than enough room for God to occupy the space left by the huge gaps in the body of knowledge we have accumulated through science. The real question is not whether God exists, but whether you want him to.

God’s existence is beyond our ability to verify scientifically, but not experientially. If one has an experience of God, then all the theories in the world will do little to challenge that experience. Empiricism is king in the sphere of knowledge. As we alluded to earlier, one experience is worth a thousand theories, and a thousand theories will do nothing to refute one experience.

You can put forward a theory that anyone who experiences God is a schizophrenic, and your theory might make some accurate predictions about these people, but ultimately, because you are shut out from these people’s cells, you cannot really know the veracity of what they experienced. You can observe the look on their face, the physiological effects of the experience, the after effects etc, but you cannot know the truth of their actual experience.

So, the mysterious situation we all find ourselves in is essentially this. We are imprisoned beings, looking out onto a world filled with other prisoners. You cannot leave your cell. You can explore the outside world only through the windows of your cell, but not directly. The highest and most valued truth you will find is your own experience, which you will ultimately have privately within the confines of your isolated cell. You can shout your experiences to other prisoners through the bars of your cell, but you cannot share it directly with anyone else. You can utilise systematic tools like the scientific method and reason to explore the world outside your cell, but discoveries made through these tools will always feel second hand as opposed to your first-hand experience somehow. You cannot really be certain about much, other than that you do in fact exist.

What you are left with then, is “Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I exist”, and just as valid is the modified statement – “I experience, therefore I exist”. After all, all thoughts are by definition experiences.

All this despite our best and really impressive efforts through science to get to objective truth. To get direct access to the true nature of things and overcome the limitations of our being stuck behind cell walls and looking through different cell windows. It seems when it comes to the most fundamental questions, we have gotten nowhere. We have learned huge amounts about the world out there, our shared open prison, but next to nothing about ourselves, the inhabitants of the prison cells we call bodies.

Likewise, God is out of reach. God is a being that we grant consciousness and self-hood to, but no definite body. A God by definition is transcendent in the sense that it would not be limited by the physical, and need not be embodied.So, if we can’t reach our own selves within our physical prison cells through the scientific endeavour, how on earth are we going to begin to reach a supposed self which occupies no defined physical space?

So ultimately, how on earth from this position can we go on to gain any knowledge about whether God does or does not exist? I think a little humility is in order, and we must be courageous and honest enough to admit, that while we have learned a great deal about our prison, we know next to nothing about ourselves, even less about the other prisoners we share this space with, and still less about any beings which may or may not exist outside of our prison.

So there you go. Impossible to convince your friend God does not exist, and likewise impossible for him to convince you he does. Interestingly, it is equally impossible for you to prove to your friend that you are having a conscious experience, as opposed to simply going through a set of programmed actions designed to look conscious and deliberated.
I suppose this question overlaps some of the ground covered by the discussion,

Just for example, the ideas of whether God can be detected by our physical senses, or whether God has provided unequivocal proof and so on are very much dependent on what sort of ideas or expectations one has. It may be that these very ideas and expectations lead us away from, not towards the supposed goal.
I wonder how someone like st. Joseph of Coppertino would answer the question. Or anyone else that apparently has escaped from the prison of perception?
I suppose this question overlaps some of the ground covered by the discussion,

Just for example, the ideas of whether God can be detected by our physical senses, or whether God has provided unequivocal proof and so on are very much dependent on what sort of ideas or expectations one has. It may be that these very ideas and expectations lead us away from, not towards the supposed goal.
If I were made of water and I lived in the ocean, how would I be aware of the ocean when there's no differentiation between what I am and what the ocean is. Simplistic analogy, granted, but it is meant to convey the idea that people go looking for God as if they were separate from God. To my mind, nothing is separate from God (or what I call God), therefore, as many a spiritual text would say, if you want to find God, look within.

Luke 17:21 said:
Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you


Lost Pilgrim
Luke 17:21 said:
Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you
Biblical footnotes read "or among you" - It is likely Jesus was referring to himself, as the quote above as translated seems to fly in the face of other important biblical texts. I'm not sure biblical theology is very blendable with Buddhism.
Ever asked an atheist what they personally would consider as evidence of a God.

The replies (if)given show that they seem to have almost never considered the question before. You get the most infantile replies.

The truth is it comes from within - as an unconscious inner 'knowing'. An outcome of the development, or unfoldment, of the soul. Nothing to do with intellect.
Intellect I suppose sometimes gives a clue to the (spiritual)advancement of the individual, that is,how they interpret that inner knowing , whether it be that religion or this, or whether they have left religion behind.

Generally speaking off course.
Convincing someone of the truth of a proposition like "there is no God" is imponderable because there is such a vast variation in what can be convincing to different individuals. I think a more ponderable question is whether there is or even can be any sort of "proof" of such a proposition.

Non-scientific legalistic definition of proof: "the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact : the process or an instance of establishing the validity of a statement especially by derivation from other statements in accordance with principles of reasoning."

Scientific proof is defined as: a demonstration of the truth of a mathematical or logical statement, based on axioms and theorems derived from those axioms.

With the non-scientific definition of "proof" acceptance by the mind is subject to the vast differences between different human minds as to what they would accept as "cogent evidence". Accordingly, there can be no absolute proof in this sense for either the proposition there is no God or the proposition that there is a God. I'm not aware of any "scientific proof" either. I don't think either scientific or non-scientific proof of the nonexistence or existence of God is possible.

I think the best that can be done in this area is the use of abductive reasoning, which is a form of logical inference which starts with an observation or compendium of observations then seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not absolutely guarantee the conclusion, only establish that it is most likely. One can understand abductive reasoning as inference to the best explanation.

Looking in this way at the more limited question of whether there is or is not a creative super intellect of incalculable power (not necessarily the God of the Scriptures or of any particular religion), I like the famous quote by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle: ""Would you not say to yourself, 'Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.'"

The carbon atom is just the tip of an immense iceberg of apparent coincidences necessary for our existence. This amounts to the well-known argument from the evident "fine-tuning" of the natural laws so as to allow for the existence of life and in particular human life, and Occam's well-known principle of parsimony, which is merely a statement of the likelihood or greater probability of the least complicated explanation. Of course scientists have strenuously argued that nevertheless all of this Universe is in fact coincidence, because of the existence of a vast or infinite number of isolated island universes with randomly varying characteristics (the "multiverse"). We just happen to have gotten lucky (or unlucky as some would say). Unfortunately for that argument there is no observational evidence and probably can't in principle be any observational evidence - it is an unscientific proposition presented to avoid the conclusions of abductive reasoning.

The nature of this intelligent force especially respect to humanity is another matter, subject to the ancient struggle of theologians with the problem of suffering. I don't think this is relevant to the issue of whether there is an intelligent creative force in the universe.