Burdens of Proof: Why I’m (Still) an Agnostic

Who has the burden of proof on the God question—atheists or theists?

I say neither because, when you raise an existential question, the truth is the whole. Nobody gets a free ride or has a prior right to win an argument by simply remaining silent. Instead, you look out at the world that you find yourself in and are forced to come up with some positive thesis: “Hmm, how do I account for what I see around me and my own existence? What’s my theory?”

If you’re a theist you say, “God did it.”

But if you’re an atheist, your response is also some sort of positive claim:

Hmm. Maybe God didn’t do it. Maybe atoms rustling in the void account for all there is.

Or, to flesh this out a bit, if you’re an atheist, and as a matter of logic, you believe at least three highly implausible “credal” things about the universe:

  • All that is came from matter and laws of physics that are eternal or derived, quite astonishingly, from nothing.
  • Matter preceeded mind, produced mind as an epiphenomenon of matter, and continues to be responsible for producing minds. 
  • The universe arrived at its current physical laws and conglomeration of atoms by a contingent process (perhaps from a prior series of birthing multiverses or just the dumb luck of a single big bang draw).

If you’re an atheist, can I get an amen on these?

There are, in other words, positive assumptions functioning in any declaration that one is an atheist, with at least three of them (the three mentioned above) bearing these characteristics:

  • They are claims absent evidence.
  • They are as jaw-dropping as theist claims (that matter and the laws of physics are eternal or perhaps came from nothing; that we may live in a multiverse; that matter, like an apple tree bearing apples, just happens to “apple” conscious minds, etc).
  • They are, as a practical matter, not really subject to falsification. If you’re determined to believe them, it’s hard to know what possible counter-evidence—absent the return of, say, Jesus in the clouds—could be offered that would dissuade you.

Now, do you still want to give a hardy amen?

Having said this, however, it doesn’t mean that atheism’s weaknesses strengthen the positive case for theism. Theism, obviously, has similar problems of sense and evidence. Unfortunately, we’re embedded in the system we’re trying to account for and we live in an ontological mystery which is so strange that any pat and definite explanation of it (God did it; time and chance did it) invariably drives one into question begging:

  • How does something come from nothing?
  • How do laws of physics just happen?
  • Who made God?
  • How could mind ever come from matter?
  • What evidence do we really have that the multiverse bears a mechanism for variation and multiplies—or even exists?

In other words, theism and atheism, when affirmed, both reach horizons of nonsense and paradox.

To my mind, the lack of ultimate sense and evidence on both sides signals (or ought to signal) caution, and, therefore, agnosticism.

Here’s the mathematician David Berlinski (who is also an agnostic on the theist-atheist question) talking to his daughter about the exceedingly complex Thing we find ourselves in:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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44 Responses to Burdens of Proof: Why I’m (Still) an Agnostic

  1. ozenwoo says:

    Interesting post, so I thought I’d jump in with a point or two. Your assertion early on that “…when you raise an existential question, the truth is the whole…” is simply wrong. When you raise an existential question the truth, and the only truth, is the existence. The rest of the big picture, regardless how whole or incomplete, grand or humble, coherent or incoherent, doesn’t matter one hoot. If something exists, it exists.

    Wonderful blog by the way. I first ran into it a few days ago while doing a Google search for, of all things, Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and Holbein’s painting “Christ From the Cross”. Keep up the good work.

    • santitafarella says:

      I guess my point is that an explanation should be complete, and hence the truth is the whole. If you have a theory about a thing, but you can’t account for some aspect of it, you may not have the whole truth afterall. That’s why a legal convention like the burden of proof does not hold up when we ask existential questions. We don’t want just any old theory regarding why something is, we want the best theory. And the best theory is the one that accounts for all the facts in the most complete manner.

      Thanks for the nice comment on the blog as a whole, by the way.

      —Santi : )

  2. Bob Chatman says:

    I don’t know if i would accept “Interesting” as a way of describing this. It is not entirely correct in that it describes Atheism as a scientific approach that includes physics, atoms and laws, theism as a position on origins and agnosticism as between the two.

    Agnosticism is not a statement of middle grounds between the two positions, it is more akin to the imaginary number i, in its relation to the number line.

    The positive X axis is theist land, the negative X axis is atheism, they are opposites:
    A theist holds a belief in a god; an atheist does not hold a belief in a god.

    Theism has to do with belief, which is not the same as knowledge, which is where Gnosticism comes into play. The positive Y axis is orthogonal to the X axis and can be thought of as Gnostic, or with/having knowledge. The negative Y axis is agnostic. it is without knowledge. Gnostic and Theism claims can be anywhere on this board off into infinity (where displacement can be considered certainty), which explains why there are Gnostic theists, agnostic atheists and everything in between.

    There are gods that i cannot be agnostic about (my friend believes in the heads on Easter Island beign gods, and i know they existed. i simply don’t accept supernatural claims about their godly nature), and there are gods i can be agnostic about (the deist god for instance).

    I am an Agnostic Atheist with regards to the Deist god because i have no evidence for their existence and have been told there can be none. I am a Gnostic atheist with regards to the omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent being that many christians cite because he is logically impossible, and in spite of evidence we should expect there is none to be found.

    In other words, you can call yourself agnostic, you can call yourself atheist, but if you call yourself agnostic in place of atheist and you don’t possess a belief in a god you will need to enlighten me as to how your definition of Agnosticism and Atheism are different.

    And lastly, regarding the scientific roots you seem to think are implied with the term Atheist, you are not correct. It would be nice if it were so, but as things stand being an atheist only means you do not possess a belief in a god, how you or anyone else arrives at that state is entirely beyond that definition. Personally i like the phrase “I don’t know.” as a way to explain origins. It seems to sum the current understanding up quite well.

  3. Unknownguest says:

    It seems your into hype.
    Why should an Atheist say the universe came from nothing? I simply suspend judgment and let science do its job.

    • santitafarella says:


      Cop out. As a matter of logic, if you reject the existence of God or mind prior to matter and believe that atoms rustling in the void wholly accounts for all that is, then matter must have always existed or it must have come from nothing. On such a question, you are faced with Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle. Either way, you are in the same conundrum as the theist with regard to the question: where did the mind of God came from?

      Be an atheist if you want. Just don’t pretend that the grounds for your belief enjoy more evidence, or are any less implausible or mind-boggling, than the person who says that they believe in God.



  4. Bob Chatman says:

    I don’t think you are quite correct there either. Atheism is a very simple response to the belief in god question, As i said earlier, it says nothing further about our beliefs as a whole. There are atheists who believe in the supernatural, in ghosts, goblins and the afterlife, as well as aliens or that we are simply brains in vats. None of these things are excluded when accepting the label of atheist. It is not a positive claim about anything.

    When i say i went to the store this morning you can choose to believe me, choose to not believe me, choose to believe i didn’t or choose to not believe that i didn’t; all are valid options, and four distinct statements about your acceptance of my claim. with something like going to the store you are likely to accept it because it is a common occurrence in our world, successfully accomplished thousands of times an hour. When you get to talking about the god issue this is an entirely different ball of twine to be unraveled.

    I believe there (is a/are) god(s) – Theist
    I do not believe there (is a/are) god(s) – Atheist

    I believe there (is/are) no god(s) – Antitheist
    I do not believe there (is/are) no god(s) – No clue what label could be applied here, but it is likely just to be the double negative application of theism.

    These are three statements about a persons belief, each of which is completely different.

    • santitafarella says:


      You said above that atheism, after rejecting gods, “says nothing further about our beliefs as a whole.”

      That, to my mind, is simply a way of saying the following: “There are a lot of atheists in the world who do not wish to follow their claims to their underlying premises and evaluate their plausiblity from that vantage.”

      —Santi : )

      • Bob Chatman says:

        I would agree with you, except that you cannot evaluate any positive claims because of a negative one. There is nothing about its definition that says anything about further claims. Even the most aggressive definition of Atheist – one who believes there is no god – does not get expanded to include Planck time discussions, atomic particles or anything about matters eternal existence.

        Given that you do not believe in Faeries, can i conclude that you think that the lost boys of peter pan had very light shoes that allowed them to bounce in a similar fashion to flying or levitation. Clearly that is silly.

        On the other hand, if you look at the theist claim, a great majority of them consider their position to be directly related to the origins argument, because that is where their god is propped up.

  5. Pingback: Begging the Question « Rationality for the Irrational

  6. sabepashubbo says:

    I’m curious as to your thoughts on theism specifically. You listed several ontological questions that you feel atheism has no answer to. Do you feel that theism also has no answers to the same questions? Looking at your final 5-point list it seems theism can give you an explanation for every single one of those questions, which would mean your issues with theism would stem from problems with the evidence. But that’s different than saying theism can’t answer ontological questions; you are just saying the evidence is unsatisfactory, and if so I’d like to hear what evidence specifically doesn’t meet your standards. I’d love to explore this idea more with you if you have the time and willingness.


    • santitafarella says:


      At this point in my life, I’m capable of entertaining deism but not much additional baggage placed upon the theist hypothesis. I would like, at an existential level, to believe that, if God exists, then God is also good.

      I suppose I like the idea of lighting a candle at the altar to the unknown god mentioned in the Book of Acts. To me, that altar represents the ontological mystery. Paul thought he knew the ontological mystery’s identity, and preached a sermon in response to it. I think his confidence was wildly premature.

      On ultimate questions, theism suffers from the same problems as atheism (plausibility, falsification, paradox, question begging, infinite regresses, etc). And most theists, in my view, have larded epistemology with dubious methods that they treat, without good warrant, as valid (appeals to faith, revelation, authority, religious experience—and an over-reliance on eye witness testimony absent physical evidence—are five obvious ones).

      Also, bad epistemic habits not grounded in critical thinking, logic, or evidence make a lot of theists rather muddle headed and hard to talk to in a serious fashion. At this level, religion does a serious disservice to people by not helping them develop good critical thinking habits. For this reason, atheist blogs, for all their rancor, are good for the mind and are doing the true work of the Lord (if the Lord exists). I’m far less certain about theist blogs or what most pastors or priests are up to.

      You might want to have a look at a blog post I did on the curious similarities between UFO belief and God belief for a fuller take on my perspective on theism:


    • sabepashubbo says:

      Thank you for your response! So it seems your problem with theism (as its difference from deism is an immanent God) is that you think because God does not intervene to solve all of the world’s problems, He is not good. Is that a fair statement? If so, I’m curious to know whom you deem to be “good,” for no human can bear this high burden either, so are we all just depraved people with no possibility for the world’s problems to ever be solved? That seems rather nihilistic, don’t you think?

      What specific theistic arguments do you think fall into the same problems as atheism? The reason I ask is that in my experience theists present positive arguments in favor of theism. I have yet to see a positive argument in favor of atheism (atheists generally argue in the negative, trying to say atheism is true because nothing else works). So it seems the two sides are operating on different playing fields. I would like to know which positions specifically you have issue with on theism (i.e. objective morality because of xyz).

      I think if you talk to the right theists you’ll find plenty that are grounded in critical thinking and logic. Sure, lots have not taken the time to become so, but that’s true of any segment of the population. Lots of agnostics aren’t grounded in these, but you’re OK with affiliating yourself with that group. It doesn’t seem to be enough to require logic to join the party. But if religion just espoused critical thinking, it would be missing out on a piece of the puzzle, because there is a relationship aspect that transcends just rational thought. If that weren’t necessary, then there would be no need for us to have emotions, whether they were derived from evolution or from God. I think your burdens for “signing up” are a bit high, based on this logic.

      All I’m trying to say is that I’m glad that you value logic and critical thinking. I do as well. But I think you’re allowing yourself the comfort of staying on step one, instead of seeing what steps above may have to offer. And it’s important to note that truth is very rarely comfortable. So I would encourage you step out and ask questions. I’m more than happy to answer from the “theists who enjoy logic and critical thinking” realm, and I’m sure there are like-minded atheists would also lend a hand.

      Thanks again for taking the time to listen and offer your opinions! That’s what these blogs are really here for anyway. 🙂

      • santitafarella says:

        I think God could be good even though he/she does not intervene in history at this time.

        As for nihilism, I think it’s important to read and think about Nietzsche. He thought deeply about the whole atheist-theist issue and deserves a lot of attention. Why contemporary atheists don’t read or talk about him all that much suggests that he inhabits their shadow and raises uncomfortable issues.

        As for making a distinction between rational reasons for believing in God and existential reasons for believing in God, I agree that both should be considered.

        As for the problem of suffering, I don’t think that theism has ever come up with a good answer for it. In this life, time and chance happeneth to all (as it says in Ecclesiastes). The hope has to be in a world elsewhere (if you can muster it).

        As for theist arguments for God’s existence, I think the cosmological argument is not too full of holes. It’s plausible. The infinite regress has to stop somewhere. The mind of God seems like a nice and arbitrary stopping point as good as any other. For myself, I’d rather think of the universe as starting with mind rather than matter. But who can (honestly) ever really know for certain?

        As for the question of having a relationship with God, I’m not sure that this is a good idea. Talking to God and not hearing anything back is kind of like having a one-way phone conversation, don’t you think? And if you go around in your life looking for hints that God talked to you in this or that way by making circumstances converge in your favor, I find this dubious and a bad habit of thought (potentially inviting into your life a lot of correlation-causation fallacies). And, when I think of prayers being answered, I think of the Holocaust. God didn’t answer the Jews’ prayers. I have no reason to think he would answer mine.

        If God exists, he is hidden in this life and can only be hoped for in the next. He knows where I am. If he wants to talk to me, I’m all ears.


  7. sabepashubbo says:


    Lots of good stuff in there! I still have some questions though.

    If you believe a deistic God can be good, and you can accept deism, then what is holding you back from accepting theism?

    I’m glad you see the benefit of the cosmological argument. Would you say that in your opinion that makes theism more plausible than atheism? Or at least supernaturalism more plausible than naturalism?

    As for the problem of suffering, I’m curious as to your thinking on this matter. Do you think that there would be suffering in the world if man were not here? Would suffering still exist if a-moral nature were all that existed?

    And finally to answered prayers and relationship with God. Do you think that an answered prayer must be in the affirmative for it to be considered answered? Or could a “no” or “not yet” answer constitute an answered prayer as well?

    And would an answered prayer only be the answer you asked for? My hypothetical for this is a woman praying to God to heal her husband of cancer. He doesn’t get healed, but she has a greater peace about the situation and her husband is in less pain than he was in before. Those would appear to be substitutionary results of the answered prayer. Are those invalid because they don’t answer what the woman specifically asked? I think these are important questions to consider before dismissing a personal God. What are your thoughts?


  8. santitafarella says:


    I don’t dismiss the idea that God is personal. I dismiss the idea that you or I, under normal circumstances, can ever know whether or not God actually is personal and is relating to us at any given moment in a personal way.

    Let me offer prayer as an example (and how obscure an experience prayer must necessarily be).

    In my view, there are two ways to pray. The first is for existential comfort; the second is for goodies.

    As to the first, if you pray as a way of achieving some calm or peace about a situation, that is legitimate. As creatures in a very large and complex Thing that we did not make ourselves, there is no shame in hoping that there is some good Mind greater than ours that hears our agonies. It’s not probable, and there is little evidence that it’s true, but it’s understandable that people would hope-against-hope for this, and gesture toward the ontological mystery as God. Not everyone has the temperament, power, or inclination to live life as a completely independent and unillusioned Sisyphus.

    In fact, that is what faith is (a gesture toward transcendence, hope, and meaning against otherwise bleak appearances). Any religious action that places hope in a good or transcendent future, or leaves worry with a power that you think may be greater than yourself and is really there, is a reasonable thing for a conscious, frail, vulnerable, and mortal creature to do. (By reasonable, I mean existentially reasonable, not reasonable in the sense that it is a good bet that you’re right.)

    But notice that, while such prayer might bring you to profound emotions, relief, and hope, you can never know objectively whether the source of those emotions, relief, and hope are derived from humdrum human psychology or because God is interacting with you personally. God is always opaque. The gesture is always yours. It’s not clear what’s really coming back to you in return (if anything).

    So hope is a reasonable existential choice, but it must always reside with you and be absent any certain external affirmation for as long as you live. It is a tricky path. And it is certainly not the only reasonable existential path. Camus’ Sisyphus path up and down the metaphorical mountain is also reasonable (and, frankly, quite a brave one; not something for the timid).

    But, as for the second type of praying (goodie praying), I’m less happy about that. If you pray with the object of moving the divine to an action in this world, you are (in my view) engaging in an intellectual error.


    Because you can never know whether a good outcome was, in fact, the result of your praying or not. How could you ever know what the result of your prayer actually was? You cannot run your life twice, once with a prayer and once without a prayer. To assume that God has ever answered one of your prayers is a correlation-causation fallacy. Objectively, you don’t have a clue.

    Insofar as you know, every prayer you’ve ever offered to God, even those that came out exactly as you hoped, have had ZERO impact on outcomes.

    Imagine a woman praying to a closed white box on a table. She has given herself over, in faith, to the following proposition: there is something quite wonderful in the box—something holy—the holy of holies. She believes that a great nonmaterial mind dwells in there, and that the box is its home. She thinks this mind is deeper and closer to the ontological mystery than her own mind. She is told that the inside of the box was opened once, many generations ago, and that it is extraordinarily beautiful inside, with otherworldly jewels on its inner walls that are beyond pricing. The box, however, is no longer openable and there is little evidence that there is anything actually in it. It’s not very heavy and nothing rattles inside when it is moved. Still, the woman places all of her existential burdens on the box and also sometimes asks its (supposedly) indwelling mind for goodies. Just looking at the box gives her comfort. Objectively, she does not know, and can never know, whether she is praying to a real mind in the box and whether she has a personal relationship with that mind. It may be that she just has an empty box before her. This is what her husband and son think.

    She prays for them.

    This is exactly where the human family of theists and atheists is at.


  9. sabepashubbo says:

    Thanks Santi.

    Just so we don’t lose it, what’s your opinion on my question posed to you re: problem of suffering?

    I would be able to concede your argument against prayer if were not the immediate experience of God a properly basic belief, and were your burden of proof about everything in the world knowledge to a certainty. Let me try to link these two.

    As an example, you do not know to an absolute certainty that the law of gravity will always hold here on earth. Some atmospheric reaction could turn gravitational force on its head. And yet you trust that it will be working every time you put your foot out to take a step. Your justified assumption that the law of gravity will be in place the next time you take a step is a properly basic belief, but it is not a certainty.

    Now, applied to the immediate experience of God, this is also considered a properly basic belief. William Lane Craig explains this better than I, so let me quote him here:

    Other properly basic beliefs include the belief in the reality of the external world, the belief in the existence of the past and the presence of other minds like your own. When you think about it none of these beliefs can be proved. But, although these sorts of beliefs are basic for us that doesn’t mean they’re arbitrary. Rather they’re grounded in the sense that they’re formed in the context of certain experiences. In the experiential context of seeing and hearing and feeling things I naturally form the belief in a world of physical objects. And thus my beliefs are not arbitrary but appropriately grounded in experience. They’re not merely basic but properly basic.

    In the same way, belief in God is, for those who know him, a properly basic belief grounded in our experience of God. Now, if this is right there’s a danger that arguments for God’s existence could actually distract your attention from God himself. If you’re sincerely seeking God then God will make his existence evident to you. We mustn’t so concentrate on the external arguments that we fail to hear the inner voice of God speaking to our own hearts. For those who listen, God becomes an immediate reality in their lives.

    So with justification of experiencing God as a properly basic belief, it then begs the question why such an experience must be reasoned out to a certainty, while the belief of the law of gravity holding constant can be merely assumed. Both are grounded in experience; why not make the standard for both the same?

    • santitafarella says:


      I subscribe to the Buddha’s view of suffering. I think he got it right. The world is burning. In other words, it’s a place where change is constant, where entropy is ever rising, and where an indifferent contingency can overtake us at any time (an earthquake, etc). We, however, are desiring animals. We want to control our environments with work and thought—to fight the entropy. And, so we suffer.

      I wrote a post not too long ago on suffering that you might want to read and then reply to (if you want to continue a discussion of suffering):



    • sabepashubbo says:


      I guess I’m still a little unclear. Are you saying by your explanation that humans are responsible for suffering? What I mean is this: does the ontology of human suffering lay with humans? Do we cause our own suffering?

      • santitafarella says:

        Well, if God exists, then God is ultimately responsible for everything. The buck stops there. The Buddha just identified (I think accurately) how humans aggravate their own suffering (by clinging to their desires and aversions). His method for dealing with this human existential problem is, I think, only moderately helpful (trying to quell one’s desires and aversions through a discipline of meditation, etc).

        The best book on suffering I’ve ever read is “Evil in Modern Thought” (by Susan Neiman). What a great book!

        Here’s the Amazon link:


      • sabepashubbo says:

        So that means, according to your worldview, that evil would exist even if man did not, correct?

      • santitafarella says:

        If you mean evil exists, independently, as one of Plato’s perfect forms in some third realm (apart from the realms of matter and the human mind, like a triangle exists, or 2 + 2 = 4 exists), I’d have to think about that. If the idea of “man” exists in the mind of the Logos, and the idea of “turnip” and “square” exist in the mind of the Logos, then I suppose things like “genocide” and “murder” exist in the mind of the Logos as well, and are waiting for their material and peculiar manifestations.

        What I’m less clear on is whether evil is the mere absence of good (and to which God would then not be responsible or associated with). Why would “love” and “beauty” be formal manifestations in the mind of God and not also “hate” and “ugliness”? If Platonic forms are concepts, what decouples the eternal and perfect form of love from its opposite: an eternal and perfect form of hate? Why would one be assumed to have the higher status of “existence” than the other, and why would hate be considered derivative (and not in the primary position)?

        If evil has an independent existence (with or without the presence of the minds of humans), what is the nature of that existence?


      • sabepashubbo says:

        I’m intrigued by your line of thought. It does speak more to the philosophical and conceptual more than to the reality of evil I think. What I’m trying to get at is the reality of evil. Does evil actually exist? Are some things actually wrong?

        From that, I think if evil exists independently of humans (mind or otherwise), then that supposes the supernatural. I say that because if humans are not around but evil still exists, the logical bases for evil that remain are either the supernatural or nature itself. But since nature is a-moral on its own, all that is left is the supernatural, and so it would be not only justified but required of you to move from agnosticism to at least supernaturalism. From there we can talk about which form of supernaturalism is most plausible.

        But if evil does not exist independently of humans, then it is clear to see where the responsibility for evil lies. This removes the problem of evil as a barrier to theism entirely, since God is not responsible for evil, but only for good.

        Finally, William Lane Craig has also made a case for evil actually being a logical argument for the existence of God. Here is the logical argument for such a notion:

        (i) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. If there is no God, moral values are either socio-biological by-products or just expressions of personal preference.
        (ii) Evil exists. That’s the premise of the atheist. There is real evil in the world.
        (iii) Therefore, objective values do exist. Some things are really wrong.
        (iv) Therefore, God exists.

        So I think in any sense that you look at it, the problem of evil/suffering is not really an argument against theism, but it actually supports a theistic worldview. The only question that remains is why a theistic God would not intervene to stop the evil that is perpetuated on this planet, which takes us down a different path. I would be more than happy to go there if you wish, but for now I would be curious as to how you can reconcile the reality of evil and still stand in agnosticism given the arguments above.

      • santitafarella says:


        I agree with you that, if God does not exist, evil as a metaphysical reality apart from matter or mind cannot exist. And I also agree with you, as a logical proposition, that if atheists call some things evil, then it would follow that they are not being coherent, that God would have to exist. Craig’s deduction, on his premises, would follow.

        But I think it’s all a bit trite to draw confidenct conclusions about God’s actual existence from such arguments. Craig might win a debating point reasoning in the fashion that he does, but it does not really get one further along to the truth.

        Also, atheists tend to just be lazy language users when they say something is evil or when they say they are exercising (contra-causal) free will on a matter. On atheist naturalism (determinate atoms rustling in the void), evil and free will don’t actually exist.

        Also, I think you’re being a bit glib about the intractability of the problems associated with evil and suffering in the world (on the premise that God exists). There are two kinds of evil in the world—natural evils (earthquakes, etc) and evils committed by conscious agents (humans and—if they exist—disembodied minds like those supposedly belonging to demons). It’s not just a matter of God “letting” bad people and devils exercise free will in a bad way, it’s a matter of God “letting” 25,000 people die in Japan in the recent earthquake and tsunami.

        As for God’s existence, I think the strongest arguments for it come from a metaphysics derived from Aristotle and elaborated on by Thomas Aquinas. But if you don’t buy the premises of these two thinkers, and the distinctions they ask you to make, then (at least for me) confidence that God exists drops considerably.

        In my view, the best way to get to theism (intellectually) is to take Aristotle’s four causes seriously (as Aquinas did) and “read” the universe in light of them. Such a move gets you to certain pro-monotheism conclusions that are rationally defensible: an Unmoved Mover different from the contingent and changing universe, a first Cause, Pure Being and Actuality, etc.

        Still, the reason I’m an agnostic and am not quite prepared to leap in with Aristotle and Aquinas has to do with a gnawing suspicion that the multiverse hypothesis and Buddhist notions of radical change absent any “Atman” (or God) may be correct.

        And, of course, there’s the uncomfortable fact that God, if He exists, prefers to remain hidden from mortals.

        One more thing that is quite obvious: I’m not as smart as the great historical thinkers on these issues (Buddha, Aquinas, Aristotle, Hume, etc), and they simply don’t agree on the God question. So what am I to make of this? It tempers overconfidence in either direction.

        Sorry I’m such a Hamlet. Perhaps it’s frustrating to talk to me. I’m just trying to be honest.


      • sabepashubbo says:

        Just answer me this then, all Aristotelianism and Thomism aside. Do you believe evil actually exists in this world?

      • santitafarella says:

        I don’t see how you can set metaphysical premises aside (especially Aristotle and Aquinas) and just look out at the world and answer the question viscerally. I (obviously) don’t deny that there are natural sources of suffering and frustration for humans (such as fires, floods, and plagues), and that there are human initiated sufferings and frustrations for humans (murder, preachers who con people out of their money, etc). In this sense, there is evil in the world (as the term is conventionally used).

        But I don’t know what evil’s ontological status is. I accept its superficial semantic status (as you appear to be using the term). But I don’t know if it is mind independent. I don’t know if it is the absence of the good, or whether it has equal ontological status with the good. I don’t have any way of knowing if there are devils or if evil is the product of the Fall of Adam and Eve. The last I heard, geneticists have pretty conclusively concluded that there could be no Adam and Eve.

        Do you think death, for example, is the product of the Fall (that there was no death prior to the Fall)? Or is death and change a natural thing that comes with an entropic universe that is 13.7 billion years old?

        In other words, there’s no escaping metaphysics: is death natural or the product of evil? How you answer that question has everything to do with your worldview. You can’t just look out at the world and answer it viscerally. James Joyce said that “death is a blessing in disguise.”

        If you disagree with Joyce, what makes you so confident that you’re right and Joyce is wrong?


      • Sabepashubbo says:

        I just think my question is a worthwhile one. You stated initially that one of your biggest objections to theism is the problem of evil. But by your own admission, if evil exists then so does God. But if evil does not exist, then neither does your objection against theism.

        This is why I ask the question, because either way you have to assume that the likelihood of God’s existence as true is greater than it is false. And that should push you further towards theism, or at least deism. But that is not agnosticism in its purest form, which I think is where you claim to be now. So I think regardless of your stance on the reality of evil, you must re-consider your position on either front.

      • santitafarella says:

        Well, I think you’re just running in circles. Obviously, if evil has ontological mind-independent status, that’s a religious premise and God would then exist.

        But the very fact that humdrum semantic evil of the common sort exists (earthquakes, murders, etc) suggests that God may not exist. The Holocaust (in my view) is a strong indicator that God may well not exist.

        You’ve got to make a distinction between semantic evil (knowing what the conventional word “evil” refers to) and the actual ontological status of evil. The problem of evil for the question of God’s existence is not “solved” merely by arriving at the semantic use of the word evil (for purposes of discussion). You’ve got to arrive at an ontological conclusion about evil. That’s something I, personally, have not done.

        If you have done this, I’d be curious to know how you’ve arrived at certainty about it.

        But your triumphant checkmate of me into the deist or theist column is premature.

      • sabepashubbo says:

        I think you’re stalling. The question is whether or not evil is a reality. Are some things really wrong? Not about semantics or ontology. We’re talking reality. If you think that anything is actually wrong, then you believe that evil actually exists.

        To not come to a conclusion on such a matter is not agnosticism, it is ignorance and apathy. Either some things are really wrong, or nothing is actually wrong.

        Let’s go with an example, and do me a favor and just answer the question outright without waxing poetic. Is the genital mutilation of women, in your opinion, wrong? Would you ever consider do that to another human being unprovoked?

      • santitafarella says:

        What you are asking me to do is not make distinctions. You want broad categorial statements like, “Genital mutilation is WRONG; and, therefore, God exists (as the metaphysical grounder of WRONG).” But there are all sorts of things that would have to be untangled to get from point A of this sentence to point B (the conclusion that God exists).

        The intellectual life is about making distinctions. And, on this matter, to not bother to notice the difference between the semantic use of a word (like “wrong”) and the ontological conclusion one draws about such a word is to arrive at a conflation that muddies clarity.

        A Thomist who uses the word “wrong” is using it differently from, say, a secular feminist who uses the word “wrong.” A secular feminist (like myself) thinks it’s wrong to mulilate the genitals of females because I have sympathy for the sexual pleasure and liberty of a being like myself (that is, a sexual being with consciousness like me). Without any greater ontological foundation than the human imagination (in which I imagine myself walking in the shoes of another, and feel compassion and empathy), I might affirm that genital mutilation is wrong and always wrong (and I do, in this sense). One doesn’t need to posit God to get this far in terms of morality. You can read Camus’s great novel, The Plague, for a similar approach to morality absent a definite belief in God.

        By contrast, a Thomist would always use the word “wrong” in the ontological context of Natural Law (derived from Aristotle’s ideas concerning formal and final causes). He would reason that genital mutilation is wrong because it frustrates the God-given function of the genitals (to pleasure and thus to a greater number of attempts, by the female, to get a man into bed to procreate with him). The sexual organs are given to us by God for sexual reproduction. That is their formal and final causes (to put it in Aristotalian terms). That is their natural function. They are not toys. Pleasure has been attached to them for maximizing reproduction.

        Of course, a Thomist might also use Natural Law theology to argue that genital mutilation is UNDERSTANDABLE (because it might keep a woman at home with her husband, passive about looking for affairs). In fact, I’m betting that Muslim countries that engage in this practice justify it as part of the maintanance of stable monogomous homes (the woman’s liberty and sexual pleasure being unimportant, as it is also unimportant in Thomistic Natural Law theology).

        So, even if you ground right and wrong in a theological ontology, you may not be able to agree on the implications. You still have to make arguments.

        It’s interesting, don’t you think, that a secular feminist grounding of morality in the sympathetic imagination might get you to a better conclusion (about how to respond to female genital mutilation) than reasoning about it via Christian or Muslim monotheism?


      • sabepashubbo says:

        But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not you personally think some things are actually wrong. For to conclude that anything is wrong, regardless of its ontology, is to admit evil actually exists in the world. And in your own words, you would therefore have to conclude that God exists.

        I think you’re wrapping yourself up in words like “consciousness” to keep from being forced to be honest with yourself. You can’t say that if evil exists then God exists, but then not bother yourself with finding the answer to whether or not evil exists. That’s laziness, and if your agnosticism is born out of that, friend, it’s a precarious place to be indeed.

        And again, if you cannot confirm that evil exists, then you cannot say that you have an issue with theism on the problem of evil, because you cannot prove that evil actually happens. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Is the problem of evil really a problem for you, or are you hiding behind it so you don’t have to make a choice?

      • santitafarella says:

        Agnosticism may be a comfy position for me, and, though I might be unconscious of it, I might well defend it for reasons other than an interest in maintaining objective clarity for myself surrounding what can be known.

        Such intellectual blindness and unconscious bias is something all humans are prone to, including Christians.

        And I understand your formal line of argument about evil and God, but you’re imagining it to be far more airtight than it is.

        To use the word “evil” beyond its semantic convention entails a commitment to the ontological proposition that evil is something that exists outside of the human mind. I don’t know that. To get to the “Evil, therefore God” proof you would have to cross, at minimum, this threshold.

        So could you please tell me how one could ever arrive at great certainty with regard to such a proposition? How could we ever know whether evil resides outside of the human mind?

        It’s like asking me if death is ultimately an evil or something ultimately natural. I think it is wrong to kill somebody, and I would regard it as an “evil” in my life if someone I loved died in, say, an earthquake, but the ontological status of death is completely opaque to me.

        Is it not opaque to you? Do you know the ontological status of death? Is it ultimately an unnatural evil that entered the universe and that God would like to abolish? How do you know?

        Please share your gnosis on this.


      • Anonymous says:

        Sure. We can affirm the existence of evil if we affirm a basic belief in the natural world (i.e. what we are living is actual and we are not all brains in vats) and if we believe any act external to ourselves is actually wrong.

        For example, if someone was to break into your house and take all of your cash and valuables, if you believe that it actually happened (and is not some “out-of-body experience) and that you are justified in believing their action is wrong, then the logical conclusion is that some evil occurred in that act.

        So again, evil is a properly basic belief predicated on the wrongness of action and the reality of the natural world. If you believe in both of those things, you believe in evil.

        In contrast, to not affirm the existence of evil is to then believe that there is no basis for actually calling anything wrong. So, for instance, I could cut off both of your legs for fun, and there is nothing wrong with that. You could not be angry or deem anything I did to be actually wrong, because you cannot conclude that “wrong” actually exists.

        So yes, it is a properly basic belief, and to deny evil is to deny reality. If you want to place your bets on the “brains in vats” belief, there’s really nothing I can do for you.

        The question, then, is do you believe that the natural world is real and that some things are actually wrong?

    • santitafarella says:

      I’m not affirming a radical skepticism about appearances. The brain in a vat is a strawman. I’m making an observation concerning Platonism (the idea that ideas like evil can have an objective and nonmaterial reality independent of human language and the human mind).

      Take away human consciousness from the universe, and where is evil?

      To treat the idea of “evil” as properly basic, with an objective ontological status that is connected to God’s existence and mind, simply because you experience bad things, is a weird thing to conclude, don’t you think? That’s quite a leap.

      All that is really properly basic here is that you are conscious of experiencing suffering. Anything further that you might conclude from this requires a bit more argument. I’m not saying that you can’t get to a plausible argument for the reality of evil, and why God’s existence would have to ground it objectively, but you need to read more of Aquinas to get there (and perhaps not rely so much on lesser mortals, like contemporary evangelical Protestant apologists).

      Aquinas is an elephant; McDowell is a flea.


      • sabepashubbo says:

        Take away human consciousness from the universe, and where is evil?

        Then God is not responsible for evil, and it’s not a problem you have with theism, but with humanity. I would submit God as the solution to that problem, and not the problem itself.

        Can you please just answer my question directly? Do you believe in the external natural world, and are some things actually wrong?

    • santitafarella says:

      Well, that’s a much easier question. Yes, I believe in an external world. I take my experience of it to be properly basic. I know of no especially good or plausible reasons to be a solipsist.

      And, yes, I think that there are things it would be wrong for me to do (because it would go against my proper nature as I currently perceive it; it would harm others for whom I have imaginative sympathy; and there MIGHT be a God grounding goodness ontologically, and so it might be wise to, at least in general terms, respond to it).

      But we’re always gaming, aren’t we?

      As for the idea that the problem of evil can be separated from God, I find that notion logically confused. The only reason that we can even pose the question (ontologically, not semantically) is in theological terms. God is not the solution to the problem of evil. It is because people believe that God exists that we then ask, “Then from whence comes evil?”

      The naturalist does not have this problem because she thinks the universe is, ultimately, a monism of determinate and blind atoms rustling in a void. Shit just happens (because of entropy and change) and animals choose widely varied evolutionary strategies to survive (and some of us are not cooperative bonobos, but sharks).

      But when you ask a naturalist to consider becoming a theist, invariably the problem of evil becomes a problem for belief in God’s existence (if God is good, why does he allow evil?; if God is all powerful, why doesn’t he stop it?).


      • sabepashubbo says:

        Yes, I believe in an external world…and, yes, I think that there are things it would be wrong for me to do…

        Then by logical conclusion, evil exists. And then by your own admission, God exists. Show me where my logic fails, otherwise you have no basis for anything but at least a confirmed supernatural belief. We can then discuss which supernatural being is most plausible as a result.

        It is because people believe that God exists that we then ask, “Then from whence comes evil?”

        Didn’t you already state the answer? “Take away human consciousness from the universe, and where is evil?”

      • sabepashubbo says:

        P.S. The “why” of evil is a lot easier to explain than the ontological basis for it. If you agree that the ontological basis of it rests with humans, then God is only responsible for the “why is it allowed,” and I can answer that question much more easily if you concede a human basis for evil.

      • santitafarella says:

        I’ll try one more go around with you on this, then I think we should switch to a different thread or subject (since we’re clearly not convincing one another on this matter).

        What I meant by saying that, if you take away the human mind, it’s hard to know where evil resides, I was speaking on atheist assumptions. Obviously, if God exists, then evil ontologically resides within God’s plan for the universe.

        If evil resides solely with humans’ free will, then, also obviously, God would not be responsible.

        But this wouldn’t explain natural evils (earthquakes, etc).

        I don’t have the mind of God, so I don’t know why there is evil in the world. The very fact that it is so often as atrocious as it is, is suggestive that God might not exist. Of course, it’s not a proof. Whenever you’re talking about God, you’re often dealing in probabilities, rarely certainties.

        You never did say whether death is evil, or where you derive your epistemic certainty from. Is this just a one way interrogation?

        Do you doubt? And, when you doubt what do you doubt?

        And, what do you say to yourself to make your doubts subside?


  10. santitafarella says:


    As to your direct experience of God constituting for you a “properly basic belief”, I’m not at all convinced that any 21st century theist can really resort (honestly) to this argument.


    Because it is an argument from innocence, and no contemporary adult theist is innocent. A properly basic belief is one arrived at without an intervening argument. Here’s an example. Let’s say I smell steak coming from an outdoor barbecue. I don’t arrive at my belief about this by argument, and you can’t give me a plausible argument that might talk me out of my experience. I know what I know. It’s properly basic.

    But wait. Let’s say I curl up in the cool of the porch and fall asleep to the smell of the cooking steak. When I wake up, I find that I am not, in fact, on the porch, but in a hospital with a doctor looking down on me. I ask, “Where am I?” and the doctor says, “You’re just coming out of a drug induced hallucination experiment. Could you please tell me what you were dreaming?” I say, “I dreamed I was on a porch smelling a steak cooking from somewhere.” I now have a new properly basic belief (I’m in a hospital participating in an experiment, and I was having a vivid dream about steak cooking, etc).

    In other words, I’m completely justified in having properly basic beliefs UNTIL I’m given plausible alternative explanations for my experience. Once I’ve been exposed to plausible alternative explanations for my experience, I cannot ignore them. My innocence collapses. I have to admit that my initial perceptions, not reasoned out, may be mistaken.

    This, I submit, is exactly where every theist is with regard to God. No theist, post-Freud especially, can ever play dumb about not knowing what psychology is. They know that their religious experiences have plausible psychological explanations, and so they can never just say, “I know what I know.” At least not honestly.

    Also, in my view you’re confusing properly basic belief with what is, in fact, true. They may not be the same things. Here’s an example of two people arriving at a properly basic belief for themselves but coming to OPPOSITE conclusions. Only one can be right, but both basic beliefs are warranted. Here’s the example: Imagine a man on a mountain in Yosemite National Park who, looking out on the beauty, exclaims in the depths of his heart, “I know God exists! I mean, just look at the world He created!” It’s a direct apprehension to him, not formally reasoned out. It would be hard to talk him out of it.

    But wait. Now imagine, at the exact same moment, a man six thousand miles away from California, visiting Auschwitz and walking the grounds there. He looks around at the horror that the place represents and exclaims in the depths of his heart, “I know that God cannot possibly exist! I mean, look at this place!” It’s a direct apprehension to him, not formally reasoned out. It would be hard to talk him out of it.

    But, here’s the kicker: both men meet each other for lunch after their vacations. One says, “I’ve converted to atheism!” The other says, “I’ve become a theist!” They tell each other what books they’ve been reading since their conversions. One says, “I’m reading Freud’s book on religion, ‘The Future of an Illusion’.” The other says, “I’m reading Alvin Plantinga’s book on the problem of suffering.” They trade books. They read each others’ books. They see that there are alternative plausible hypotheses that might undermine what they took to be properly basic beliefs from earlier in the summer. Thus, neither of them can any longer maintain that their beliefs are properly basic anymore. They have to now resort to making more formal arguments for believing that their experiences are still valid.

    One more example: A six-year-old child wished on a star. It makes no difference who she was. The little thing her heart desired came to her. She wished for her mommy and daddy to take her to an amusement park. The very next day they surprised her with a trip to an amusement park. When a kindergarten friend asks her why her mommy and daddy did this, she says, “Because I wished upon a star.” Her belief is properly basic and completely warranted.


    Because the little girl knows nothing about statistics or correlation-causation fallacies. She has a simple semantic understanding of what a star is (a twinkly pretty thing in the sky), but she has zip ontological understanding of what a star is. Once, however, she has been exposed to statistics, correlation-causation fallacies, and studied stars in an astronomy class in college, she can no longer treat her knowledge concerning her star wishing experience at six-years-old as properly basic. She has moved from innocence to adult experience. This is what every alert adult person who believes in God has done. They can still believe in God, but they can’t pretend that their belief is properly basic. They’ve been tainted with plausible alternative gnosis.


  11. Pingback: Paradise Lost: The Problem with God Belief as Properly Basic | Prometheus Unbound

  12. Dudey says:

    ” All that is came from matter and laws of physics that are eternal or derived, quite astonishingly, from nothing.
    Matter preceeded mind, produced mind as an epiphenomenon of matter, and continues to be responsible for producing minds.
    The universe arrived at its current physical laws and conglomeration of atoms by a contingent process (perhaps from a prior series of birthing multiverses or just the dumb luck of a single big bang draw).

    If you’re an atheist, can I get an amen on these?”

    Nope you can’t, by being an atheist I am simply lacking a belief a God does exist.The 3 above aren’t needed.I could believe mind preceded matter that if I am an advocate of solipsism or if I believe aliens created us through a time paradox. The multiverse isn’t a propriety of atheism either ,nothing prevents a theist from believing that there are several universes .
    Nothing prevents me from not having a bloody clue where the universe came from or why it is that way.Hell, the lack of belief in a deity is equal or predates all this concepts.

    Also my reason isn’t necessarily a positive, unless you believe that to reject a positive claim I need another positive.Which is plain not true and borders on ” God of the Gaps”.
    Let’s use an analogy , if someone makes the claim that Dexter Morgan killed Caylee Anthony I don’t need to point the actual murderer to discredit the calim since Dexter Morgan as he is a TV character.

  13. ” All that is came from matter and laws of physics that are eternal or derived, quite astonishingly, from nothing.
    Matter preceeded mind, produced mind as an epiphenomenon of matter, and continues to be responsible for producing minds.
    The universe arrived at its current physical laws and conglomeration of atoms by a contingent process (perhaps from a prior series of birthing multiverses or just the dumb luck of a single big bang draw).

    If you’re an atheist, can I get an amen on these?”

    Nope you can’t, by being an atheist I am simply lacking a belief a God does exist.The 3 above aren’t needed.I could believe mind preceded matter if I am an advocate of solipsism or if I believe aliens created us through a time paradox. The multiverse isn’t a propriety of atheism either ,nothing prevents a theist from believing that there are several universes .
    Nothing prevents me from not having a bloody clue where the universe came from or why it is that way.Hell, the lack of belief in a deity is equal or predates all this concepts.

    Also my reason isn’t necessarily a positive, unless you believe that to reject a positive claim I need another positive.Which is plain not true and borders on ” God of the Gaps”.
    Let’s use an analogy , if someone makes the claim that Dexter Morgan killed Caylee Anthony I don’t need to point the actual murderer to discredit the claim since Dexter Morgan as he is a TV character.

  14. sorry I posted twice

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      No worries. As for your comment, let’s get real. If you disbelieve God exists, you must have some ultimate alternative hypothesis for what you see does exist (mind-first solipsism; multiverse dicing; simple luck of the first and only Big Bang, things come from nothing, etc.). And if you have such a hypothesis—whatever it is—it is then incumbent upon you to justify it with reasons for believing it.

      Take your own analogy. If you’ll permit me to paraphrase you, you didn’t say, “I don’t believe that Dexter Morgan killed Caylee” and left it at that. You said, “I don’t believe Dexter killed Caylee BECAUSE I have an alternative explanation for the claim: they are TV characters!”

      If called upon, in other words, you could offer supports for your alternative hypothesis, providing evidence that they are TV characters, that they filmed the show in a particular year, etc.

      But here’s the key: you must have an alternative hypothesis of some sort—or believe that there must be some alternative hypothesis that you can’t think of at the moment—to even rationally state the denial.

      Thus it is that all atheists, sooner or later, try on other explanations for the existence of the universe. As a practical matter, very few atheists are solipsists. I mentioned only the most plausible live options.

      If God’s existence is not true, something else must be. But what?


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