Evidence, Arguments, and Proving a Negative
My pen name and username here in the forums is "rainbow walking." I've been a regular contestant for a number of years and initially began to participate as a theist, deconverted, and have been an atheist now for roughly two years.
One of the unique experiences I've had over the last four years is to discuss and debate the relevant issues of atheism vs. theism--from both sides of the fence. First as a theist I argued passionately for the existence of the Christian God. During the course of this endeavor my views changed. Weighted down by the compelling evidence and force of the arguments against me I began to reconsider my worldview and eventually deconverted. This change began when I was able to honestly examine the disparity between my faith and the reasons I held to it.
Learning can be a profound experience, one that has the force to change us, our perceived directions, values, priorities--even the meaning we derive from and ascribe to our very existence... which brings me to contemplate whether I can truthfully say that my lack of belief in the existence of God or gods is due merely to a lack of evidence. While that seems to be the simplest way for the atheist to make a case for atheism, I'm not satisfied that it complies with the methods we typically employ in making our case, nor am I convinced that it adequately conveys the reasoning beneath my own deconversion.
As a theist I reasoned that the atheist did not really lack a belief in God but actually did believe in the existence of God, yet was emotionally divorced from this belief by some past hurt that was now being expressed as anger and rejection. I also rationalized that many atheists used the "no evidence for God's existence" argument because they were, for any number of reasons, blinded to the truth and/or self-deluded. Their negative position with regard to the evidence seemed to me to be the clue to restoring their relationship with God; all I had to do was present enough evidence to overcome their objections and they would return to the fold. I realize now just how naive I was but you'd be surprised how many theists proceed on these assumptions.
During the course of thousands of hours of discussion with atheists I began to realize that their "lack of evidence" claims were only the tip of the ice berg, that the real force of their arguments came when augmenting the lack-of-evidence claims with compelling evidence against the existence of God. Using examples of historical, political and moral bankruptcy as well as logic, naturalistic explanations and refutations of biblical inerrancy--I was overwhelmed with the task before me. I discovered it was actually my theistic heritage that opened up the supply routes, furnishing them with more weapons and ammunition than I could possibly resist.
I have not forgotten what a shock it can be to a theist to discover how well-equipped the atheist is and who it is that outfitted him so well. To be confronted with the fact that one's heritage fuels the arguments of one's adversaries is a rude awakening--which brings me more to the point of this labor.
When a theist launches his claim for the existence of God he does so in the anticipation that I will rationally consider his claims, thus he considers my rational consideration of his claims to be a positive step toward accepting his position. From this "positive step," I often find that my focus--not through a conscious decision on my part, but naturally--becomes what can only be described as "proving a negative"; I not only deny the validity and unpersuasiveness of the evidence and arguments offered but I am also drawn into using countermeasures that amount to evidence and arguments of the converse, namely that God does not exist.
Thus, I wish to further explore whether my atheism is actually based on an absence of evidence for the existence of a god or on a compendium of evidence and arguments against the existence of a god. That is, have I actually proceeded well beyond the one position, the lack of evidence position, while actively engaging in advancing another? Is it the case that proving the negative comes closer to describing my position? If so, then I want to redefine my position and my arguments to properly align with my reasons for holding that position.
The fact is that I am persuaded--more than ever--that the compendium of evidences against the existence of God (or a god) is likely the strongest approach and that it will prove in the long run to be the most successful.
If I am going to be in the business of proving a negative I want to know that is what I am about the business of, and I do not want to be confused about what it is I'm actually undertaking when defending and/or defining my atheism. My position will be strengthened by clarity of purpose as much as it is by content. If it is the case that "absence of evidence" is my military base from which I will fly sorties into enemy territory (which, figuratively speaking, represents the offensive maneuver of "proving a negative"), then I am no longer on the firm soil of lack of evidence. It is prudent to know when one has embarked on such a mission as it clearly entails a more-stringent dedication to the details of supporting one's counterclaims. (It might also benefit other atheists to recognize this tactic as a sure sign that they are no longer on the firm soil of lack of evidence.) While it is true that the mere lack of evidence may be counted as evidence against, and while it is true that the definitions of atheism (as in strong and weak) and agnosticism seemingly describe distinct positions, I do not think the distinctions are easily made or clearly defined. It seems to me that the distinctions are often defined by the methods we deploy in defending our position.
Curious though it may seem, the weak atheist and agnostic positions are considered by many to be the stronger positions in terms of defending them inasmuch as one needs only to stick to pointing out the lack of evidence; by contrast, the strong atheist position is considered to be the weaker position as it requires one to accept a burden of proof, a burden of proof which many feel cannot carry the load, that of proving a negative.
While it is not my intention to delve into details of arguments that constitute "proving the negative" I am suggesting that any counterinitiative may be so construed--and should be. The principle is no different than that of validating ontological claims in any subject area through a process of error-reduction to determine what is "not" in the case of a given claim or assigned attribute. Of course this process does not begin until the subject is defined.
In a nutshell, it can only help the atheist's position to be clear on the delineation between lack of evidence and evidence/arguments against--which is precisely that point when one has launched his own endeavor to prove the negative. When one's intents and purposes are clearly defined it becomes much easier to identify the obstacles to success.
Proving the negative is a purposeful endeavor, and much more effective when one has clearly defined this to be his purpose. In this respect, absence of evidence is just one more fact among a compendium of such facts. Absence--with a plethora of evidences against stacked on top for good measure--will result in a convincing and compelling argument for the reasoning which underlies the atheist's worldview.
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