You are currently browsing the daily archive for March 21, 2008.

Melyvn’s Bragg’s programme on Soren Kierkegaard, part of the “In Our Time” series is not only a very clear introduction to Kierkegaard, but a thought provoking bridge between philosophy and Christianity, and a meditation on the nature of Christ.

Listen again


Jonathan Rée, Visiting Professor at Roehampton University and the Royal College of ArtClare Carlisle, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of LiverpoolJohn Lippitt, Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Hertfordshire

A C Grayling is a British philosopher.  For neatness, I’ll group him with Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.  He is a philosopher in the analytical tradition and a loud voice in that popular chorus of atheists that seek to put religion where they believe it belongs.  This is a short piece that he wrote in the March issue of Prospect.  He seeks to show that God does not exist.
Is it impossible to prove a negative?
“The claim that negatives cannot be proved is beloved of theists who resist the assaults of sceptics by asserting that the non-existence of God cannot be proved. By this they hope to persuade themselves and others that at least the possibility remains open that a supernatural agency exists; from there they make the inflationary move from alleged mere possibility to not eating meat on Fridays. They are, however, wrong both about not being able to prove a negative, and about not being able to prove supernatural agencies exist and are active in the universe. Seeing why requires a brief refresher on the nature of proof.
Proof in a formal deductive system consists in deriving a conclusion from premises by rules. Formal derivations are literally explications, in the sense that all the information that constitutes the conclusion is already in the premises, so a derivation is in fact merely a rearrangement. There is no logical novelty in the conclusion, though there might be and often is psychological novelty, in the sense that the conclusion can seem unobvious or even surprising because the information constituting it was so dispersed among the premises.
Demonstrative proof, as just explained, is watertight and conclusive. It is a mechanical matter; computers do it best. Change the rules or axioms of a formal system, and you change the results. Such proof is only to be found in mathematics and logic.
Proof in all other spheres of reasoning consists in adducing evidence of the kind and in the quantity that makes it irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic to reject the conclusion thus being supported. This is proof in the scientific and common-sense meaning. The definitive illustration of what this means, especially for the use that theists would like to make of the myth that you cannot prove a negative, is Carl Sagan’s “dragon in the garage” story, which involves the teller claiming that he has a dragon in his garage—except that it’s invisible, incorporeal and undetectable. In response to which one can only ask— if there’s no way to disprove a contention, and no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that something exists?
No self-respecting theist would go so far as to claim that “you cannot prove the non-existence of God” entails “God exists.” As mentioned, their point is merely to leave open the possibility that such a being might exist. But Sagan’s dragon dashes even this hope. For one can show that it is absurd, irrational, intellectually irresponsible or even lunatic to believe that fairies, goblins, the Norse gods, the Hindu gods, the gods of early Judaism (yes, there were several: go check), and so endlessly on, “might exist.” It would compound the felony a millionfold to grant this and yet insist that one’s own (Christian or Muslim, say) deity “nevertheless” exists or might exist.
For a simple case of proving a negative, by the way, consider how you prove the absence of pennies in a piggy-bank.”
It is a brave attempt – to prove that God does not exist in such a short piece – but, in my honest but uninformed opinion, it fails miserably.  He makes his argument by playing with the meaning of “proof” and moving away from his own position as a master of logic.
To prove something is not, he says, to derive a conclusion from a premise (such as (1) All men are mortal: (2) Sophocles was a man: (3) Therefore Sophocles was mortal).  No, in order to prove something he says it is sufficient to show that to believe in it would be “irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even lunatic”.  He thinks he can do this easily in relation to the tooth fairy, and, therefore, even more easily in relation to God.
I went to London yesterday and, in a few spare moments, went in search of the world’s best chocolates to tickle my mother-in-law’s taste buds at Easter.  These works of art are fabricated by Pierre Marcolini who has a chocolate shop in the Grand Sablon in Brussels, but allows some of his divine chocolates to be sold in a tiny, antiquated grocer’s shop housed in a building owned by the writer, Jeannette Winterson in Spitalfields, well on the way to the East end of London. 
Inside the timeless facade, the shop is dark and a fire burns in a cast iron grate.  A beaten copper counter glows orange in the subdued light and the flickers from the coal flames.  Behind the counter sits a moist quiche lorraine, the odour of which I carried around in my nose for hours afterwards, taking careful sniffs, not wanting to use it all up.  The divine chocolates sit in a Victorian dark wood glass fronted case.  Gilded chocolate and ruby red hearts rub shoulders with almost black squares neatly labelled in gold writing to give an indication of the contents of their precious centres – thyme and orange, or lemon and tea.
But I digress, for the real star of the show was the stunning spire of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s church, Christ Church, Spitalfields.  For a very brief moment the sun pierced the clouds to shine just on its stone facade so that it shone golden against a grey backdrop of clouds.  Everyone stopped and took photographs and then, in the blink of an eye, the sun had gone and, but for our photographs, we would almost never have believed it possible and possibly irrational or absurd.
 Click-> Verde & Co.
Verde & Co
Grocers and Italian Warehousemen
40 Brushfield Street
Spitalfields E1
Tel: 020 7247 1924