Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Proof of God?


As someone who was raised in a deeply religious Christian family and ultimately became an Atheist, the existence or non-existence of God has sometimes been on my mind, including issues like the poor quality of proof suggested in favor and how we can justify the jump from e.g. “some deity exists” (should sufficient proof at some point be presented) to “specifically the Judeo-Christian God exists”. Another interesting question is when proof can be taken at face value: if I am spoken to by a burning bush, how do I know that it is God and not the Devil or a practical joker (or that some other explanation yet is behind the event)?

In the long term, I might go into some depth on this, notably, to discuss why this-or-that proof does not hold. For now, I only include a discussion of a semi-strong pro-argument of my own invention, as well as a few excursions. (While it is of my own invention, I do not rule out that others have had similar thoughts at a much earlier date—genuinely new ideas are hard to find.)

While the discussion is largely focused on the Judeo-Christian God (who is (a) of natural personal relevance, (b) the goal of most of the attempted proofs that I have seen), most of it applies with minor modifications to other deities and more general ideas.

Argument from the hierarchical nature of life

For a long part of history, nature was viewed as something fairly hierarchical, e.g. in that humans were above horses, horses above goats, goats above rats, rats above spiders—be it explicitly or implicitly, by creation or by some other driving factor.


Also note the concept of the “Great Chain of Being”, which, however, has the deficiency, from my point of view, of already including God.

A more general deficiency is that a belief in such a hierarchy is often partially based on a belief in creation, which can cause a circular argument in many cases; however, even many early Evolutionists seem to have had ideas about life proceeding from the lesser to the higher. (These ideas were at best simplistic; at worst, outright wrong.)

The original idea goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks (but I am not aware of the details of their take or takes). Similar ideas exist outside a “Western” context, e.g. in that re-incarnation religions can have some type of hierarchy of life within which souls can be promoted or demoted from birth to birth.

If such a hierarchy of life is postulated (and many, I suspect, would have taken it entirely for granted at some past times), at least two overlapping pro-God arguments arise:

Firstly, it would be highly presumptuous to assume that humans are truly at the top of the hierarchy. We might seem to be superior to e.g. horses, but a horse that has never seen a human might perceive horses as the top of the hierarchy. (Making some allowance for the limits of a horse’s mind and what types of thoughts are possible within it.) Ditto e.g. sharks in the oceans and pre-civilization humans encountered during early explorations. It then seems plausible to assume that the hierarchy continues past humans.

Secondly, statistically speaking, chances are that the top of the hierarchy would not yet have been observed, if the set of observations is sufficiently small and/or do not form a sufficiently representative sample. The tallest man in the village, e.g., is unlikely to be the tallest man in the world. Beginning with a Darwin-era Brit, we might then move from the village of Shrewsbury to the entirety of Shropshire, to the entirety of England, the British empire, the entire European sphere of influence, the entire world, with an increasing likelihood (and confidence in the likelihood) that the tallest known man was the tallest, going from the negligible (Shrewsbury) to the virtually certain (the entire world). Along the way, we might then have issues like some areas being too poorly explored to be yet included (the entire world, e.g., was too poorly explored for a perfect inclusion) and the possibility than an encounter with some new group of humans with a different height distribution would radically alter the views on height. Too boot, if of secondary importance, we have the issue whether someone taller might have lived in the past and whether someone taller will live in the future. Now, if we apply the same type of thinking to the hierarchy of life, how do we know that we have covered sufficiently much of the world to truly see humans as being at the top? (As opposed to, say, at the top of the hierarchy within the British empire.)

Factoring in what might or might not exist underground, at the bottom of the ocean, and in the skies above, it might not just be highly presumptuous but statistically unwise to assume that humans were on top merely because we had no clear evidence that something higher did not exist. This, especially, as there were a great many claims of higher beings from various sources—and often exactly in places where human exploration had been highly limited or entirely absent. Note e.g. the idea of God in Heaven (which was often taken much more literally back then than it is today) or of constellations like Zeus (sky god), Hades (underworld god), Poseidon (sea good).


Of course, this line of argumentation tells us nothing about who or what would be ahead in the hierarchy—it just gives an indication that something would be. Combined with claims of God or various gods of a plausible-by-the-standards-of-the-day nature, the jump to a more specific belief is not large, however. By analogy, if someone were to furnish non-hoax proof of a very tall, furry, non-human humanoid in traditional “Big Foot” territory, it is not a big jump to believe that this creature is “Big Foot”, even should other explanations remain possible.

Also note that the approach is probabilistic in nature and does not allow a logically certain conclusion. (While some arguments by others have, while failing, been more ambitious.)

Moving on to the now, this type of hierarchical thinking has been succeed by a much more nuanced view, where we, at a minimum, have to think in terms of a tree with many different branches and leaves, non of which is strictly superior to the others in every regard. Humans might, e.g., be the most intelligent group, but birds can fly, many land-living animals can run faster, some non-human beings grow older (trees often vastly so), etc.—and even creatures quite low in the hierarchy of old can show some truly impressive characteristics (e.g. spiders and ants). To some degree, it can be claimed that a life-form has to be exceptionally good at least some thing or some few things in order to survive.

This removes much of the “highly presumptuous” angle, as humans are already removed from the top of the hierarchy (or, rather, the hierarchy has been removed from under humans). However, a similar reasoning in a re-phrased/-conceived form is possible and, while the argument is much weaker without the hierarchy, it is not invalidated. (In terms of probabilities, we might replace a “reasonably likely” with a “a bit likelier than without the argument”.)

Widening the field a little to look at some specific aspect or set of aspects of humans, e.g. intelligence, even the hierarchy (or something close to it) can be revived and the original argument holds with strength again. For instance, chances are that humans are not the most intelligent beings in the universe.


In a next step, other debates might follow, e.g. as to whether some alien species might have gone so far beyond humans that they could, in some sense, be considered gods. Note e.g. various enormously powerful and intelligent beings in the “Star Trek” universe and how the “Stargate” universe actually explains human myths of gods with alien civilizations posing as and/or being construed as gods. (In neither case do I claim that encounters with such beings would be realistic outside fiction—they serve as illustration of principle only.) Apart from a common involvement with the creation of the world and/or humans, the gods featuring in religion and mythology rarely have characteristics that go beyond being non-humans of immense power and whatnot, which could, indeed, make the lines blurry, should sufficiently advanced aliens actually be encountered. (Also note an earlier text on technology vs. magic.)


I have repeatedly seen weak thinkers try to group belief in (or, m.m., openness to) alien life with e.g. belief in ghosts, fortune telling, and similar—as if belief in alien life would imply a belief in alien-created crop circles, “alien abductions”, etc.

The universe is so incomprehensibly large that alien life, even intelligent alien life, is a near certainty. The likelihood of e.g. alien visitors, let alone alien visitors who create crop circles, is a very, very different matter with a far, far lower probability. The one must not be confused with the other.

(This, of course, under the premise of a spontaneous creation of life followed by evolution. If divine intervention were necessary, all bets could be off.)


As I am an Atheist, the above argument obviously cannot have filled me with a Theist conviction. However, this must in part be seen in light of that missing premise of a hierarchical nature. If I had been a believer in a sufficiently suitable hierarchy, things might have been different on a balance-of-probabilities basis. (I re-iterate that the argument is probabilistic in nature.)

Excursion on Atheism, proof of non-existence, and burden of proof

Labels are often tricky in that the exact implication varies depending the user, the time of use, and similar. This includes “Atheist”, “Agnostic”, “Theist”, and similar labels.

For the sake of precision: I do not believe in the existence of God, nor other gods/deities in a reasonably conventional sense. (Nor in spirits, fairies, gnomes, demons, lares and penates, and similar; the division between deity and something “merely” magic or otherwise preternatural can be vague.) However, I have yet to see proof of non-existence and I cannot, therefore, speak in terms beyond e.g. “highly unlikely”. (As a special case of a general maxim, absence of proof of God is not proof of absence of God.)

Now, if I have proof neither of the existence nor of the non-existence of God, why do I give the one side greater credit? Why not the other? Why not consider it a coin-toss decision? (Also see another excursion for coin tosses.)

There are several reasons. The two most important:

Firstly, it is the party making a positive claims that should normally be given the burden of proof, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The existence of God is an extraordinary claim. (An interesting observation is that, say, a Medieval European might have seen this the other way around, but he spoke from much less information and in a setting of great and artificial hegemony of pro-God opinion.)

It is then up to the believers to prove their thesis—not up to the rest of the world to prove them wrong.


Not adhering to this idea can lead to absurd consequences. Note e.g. thought experiments like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or that teapot in the sky, or how pushers of Homeopathic quackery often argue with some variation of “You haven’t proved me wrong; ergo, I am right!”, and the general division between claims that are and are not provable resp. falsifiable.

(The last without necessarily seeing falsifiability as a necessary criterion in science. The point is rather that it is inherently impossible to prove the non-existence of a great many things, while a single positive example could prove the existence.)

At an extreme, imagine if mathematicians where to make certain claims in the form of theorems and then, instead of providing proof (or, as case may have it, qualify the claims as speculative), defy the rest of the world to prove them wrong.

Secondly, if God had existed, I would have expected to see much more evidence of it, be it in person or through contemporary and credible “eyewitness accounts” (as opposed to e.g. Biblical accounts, stories of long-dead saints, and the claims of the odd drunk-saved-by-Jesus). To take just one example, why cannot the Pope perform the type of miracles attributed to the Apostles?


Explanations for such absence are possible (and, again, absence of proof is not proof of absence), e.g. that the Pope is not a worthy successor, that the time of miracles is, for one reason or another, ended, or that life is a test and that only those who believe without proof pass the test.

This is certainly possible, but, if so, we again land at that burden of proof issue—and we also see a disturbing parallel with some common excuse making among e.g. ESP pushers (say, that the presence of a sceptic would, somehow, block a power otherwise present).

Excursion on coin tosses

Assume, absent prior proofs, probability estimates, empirical knowledge of the world, and whatnot, that any two yes–no events are 50–50, or coin-toss, propositions. Now take a closed door leading to a room. Without further information, we would then have to assume a 50–50 chance of finding or not finding a princess when we open it. Likewise, we would have to have a 50–50 chance of finding a beautiful and naked princess. Ditto, a beautiful, blond, and naked princess. Also, in contrast, a beautiful, blond princess wearing a gown. Ditto, a vicious tiger. Ditto a vicious troll, with or without a club. For that matter, a vicious princess with a club could not be ruled out.

Clearly, then, we cannot just blindly assume a 50–50 proposition in the absence of further information—the results simply become absurd. We might get out of the situation by saying that the relative probabilities are currently unknown, but that is not the same as 50–50 (although, it might seem so at a first glance).


Above, an argument could be made that the problem lies in too great a differentiation, that, maybe, a case for 50–50 could be made if we restricted ourselves to finding or not finding a living being on the other side of the door. However, even if we allowed this, it would, with an eye at the main topic, bring us no further than a 50–50 probability of some type of higher being—not necessarily a god and certainly not something as specific as the Judeo-Christian God. This while the actual, real-life probability of finding a living being behind a door varies greatly with the type of door and the context at hand. (Not counting such beings too small to be easily spotted by the naked eye. That we will find a great number of bacteria and whatnots behind almost all doors is a given on earth. Walk-in freezers and clean-rooms of various kinds might be exceptions, but they are a very small minority of all rooms and are unlikely to be fool proof in this regard.)

Also note that, without prior information, we cannot conclude that the probability of specifically a princess is low—maybe princesses are abundant. Likewise, maybe princesses are much more likely to be blond than to have some other hair color. Etc. Now, real-life experiences do show that princesses are rarely encountered by most of us, but real-life experiences are also of the type of prior information that we had ruled out.