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Michael Martin Disproof

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Darshana 10 (1970): 22-26. The page numbers below show the position of the text within that pagination scheme.]



A Disproof of God’s Existence (1970)

Michael Martin

In this paper I present a disproof of the existence of God. Such a disproof does not disprove the existence of God in all senses of the ambiguous term ‘God.’ But no disproof does this. For instance what one might call the disproof of God’s existence from the problem of evil, even if sound, presumably does not show that God does not exist if ‘God’ is meant to refer to some being that either is not omnipotent or not completely benevolent. Again, the so called ontological Disproof of God, even if sound, does not show that God does not exist if ‘God’ is meant to refer to some being that is less than perfect.

In order to tell what the relevance of such disproofs have to ordinary people’s belief in God one must discern what the ordinary concept of God is. But this is sometimes difficult. We have a good idea what professional philosaphers and theologians mean by ‘God’ but what the theologically and philosophically unsophisticated mean by ‘God’ is often not so clear. For instance, it is not so obvious to me that most people in our culture who believe in God believe that God is a Perfect Being. One suspects that many religious believers have a more limited or modest view of God. If this is so, the above mentioned disproofs of the existence of God, even if sound, could hardly touch many people’s religious convictions.

My disproof of the exisrence of God does, I believe, refute a belief in God that is based on a common concept of God, a notion of God that many people hold–although I am willing to admit that this God may not be the God of professional philosophers or theologicians. (The concept of God presumed in my disproof is not a Perfect Being and differs from the standard academic notion in other ways). Thus I will argue that ‘God’ in one sense that is widely accepted in non-academic circles is self contradictory and thus that God in this sense cannot exist. I will first give a rather informal exposition of the disproof, then I will give a more formal version. Finally, I will defend the disproof against possible objections.

Informal Statement of the Disproof

The ordinary man seems to believe that God is the most moral being in the universe. (Whether he believes that God is morally perfect we need not decide). Part of this belief of the ordinary man is that God does not have certain kinds of feelings. Although God may have the feeling of anger, God does not have the feelings of lust or envy. Moreover, part of this ordinary concept of God is that God knows more than anyone else. (Again whether the ordinary man believes that God knows everything we



leave as an open question). In particular the ordinary man supposes that God knows (at least) all that men know. However these two beliefs, once correctly understood, are logically incompatible. Let me explain.

Philosophers in talking about God’s knowledge almost invariably equate God’s knowledge with what has been called propositional knowledge or knowledge that something is the case. This intellectual view of God does not seem to be shared by the common man. On his view God’s knowledge includes other types of knowledge as well. The plain man certainly supposes that God knows how to do many things and he does not mean by this that God knows that certain things should be done in such and such a way; he believes that God has certain skills (procedural knowledge) i.e. at least all those skills that men have.

Moreover, it is not obvious that ordinary people suppose that man’s or God’s knowledge is exhausted by knowledge that and knowledge how. There is a use of ‘know’ in ordinary parlance which cannot be reduced to knowledge that or knowledge how. When one says "I. know Smith" one does not ordinarily mean merely that one has certain propositional or procedural knowledge concerning Smith. Usually what is at least suggested is that one has met Smith. In other expressions of the form "Person P know X" the meaning is changed only slightly. When one says "Jones knows sorrow" one does not usually mean only that Jones knows that sorrow results in such and such behavior or that sorrow is caused in such and such a way. One is usually suggesting rather that Jones has had the experience of sorrow. The same thing goes for the expression "He has known lust" or "He has known envy." A person who knows lust and envy has at least had the feeling of lust or envy. Since God has all of men’s knowledge and more, he must know lust and envy. But to say God has known lust and envy is to say that God has had the feelings of lust and envy. But this is incompatible with God’s moral goodness. Hence God does not exist.


Premise (1)

If God exists, God has not had the feelings of lust or envy.

Premise (2)

If God exists, God exists as a being who knows at least everything man knows.

Premise (3)

If God exists as a being who knows at least everything man knows, God knows lust and envy.

Premise (4)

If God knows lust and envy, God has had the feelings of lust and envy.



(5) God exists.

By hypothesis.

(6) .: God has had and has not had the feelings of lust and envy.

By (1) – (5).

(7) God does not exist.

By (5) & (6)

Q. E. D.


Objection (1)

God’s moral goodness does not concern His feelings; rather they concern His action and the principle of His action. Thus premise (1) is false.


Now it is true that sometimes in judging the moral quality of a person one takes account only of his action and the principle of his action. A person who did good deeds all of his life and who acted on moral principles would normally be considered a good person. But still we would consider such a person better if there were not envy or lust in his heart. In any case, it is inconceivable to the ordinary religious believer that God’s good action and purpose should hide His feelings of lust and envy. People demand that in God at least–who is their moral Ideal–the feelings of lust and envy should not exist.

Objection (2)

If God had the feelings of lust and envy and this affected Him, this would indeed detract from his moral goodness. However, God because of His great powers need not let these feelings affect Him. Thus premise (1) is false.


It is difficult to know what ‘affect Him’ means here. Envy and lust are feelings that must affect the person that has them. One need not succumb to such feelings to be affected by them. By definition they do have some effect, i.e. these feelings involve certain strivings in the person that has them. Just because God may never be overcome by these feelings is not enough. The mere fact that He has had them would take away from His moral goodness on the common view.

Moreover, unless God sometimes did succumb to envy or lust this would detract from His knowledge and He would know less than some men. To say Jones has known succumbing to lust is presumably to say that Jones once experienced this succumbing himself, i.e. he once succumbed. If God lacked this knowledge, He would know less than Jones in one respect at least.



Objection (3)

God’s knowledge is only propositional knowledge. Thus premise (3) is false.


This argument seems to me to be mistaken at least as far as a common view of God goes. Indeed, I would argue that the more personal a view of God one has–and most ordinary people have a very personal view of God–the more mistaken this retort is. People who tend to think of God as a person naturally tend to think of Him as having many characteristics of persons and this includes the sort of knowledge that persons have. And this knowledge includes more than propositional knowledge.

Objection (4)

Since God is all powerful he can know lust and envy without having the feelings of envy and greed. Thus premise (4) is false.


As I have already mentioned I am skeptical that philosophers have adequately characterized the ordinary notion of God and thus I am not sure that omnipotence is a property that most people predicate of God. But, in any case, as I understand the expression “He has known lust” it would be logically impossible for God to have known lust and not have had the feeling of lust. Presumably, even on the academic notion of God, God cannot do what is logically impossible.

Objection (5)

Your argument is in fact a very ancient and well worn objection and neglects the classical replies that have been made to it. Thus your argument is without merit.


It is true that an argument similar to mine is found in classical literature. The classical reply to such an argument was usually to point out that God’s knowledge of lust and envy need not involve having these feelings. This answer is sufficient in the classical context to refute the argument since the traditional philosophical and theological intellectual notion of God was at issue. In this context only propositional knowledge was relevant. But in the present context such an answer is not sufficient since this traditional philosophical and theological notion of God is not under consideration. We are considering the existence of God of the ordinary man. Here the ordinary sense of ‘know’ is relevant. And in one ordinary sense of ‘know’ one does not know lust or envy unless one has experienced lust and envy. Thus my disproof is not in fact an ancient and well worn objection that neglects the classical replies.

Objection (6)

This argument, even if sound, refutes the belief in God of the unsophisticated person. But it is hardly surprising that such a person’s view



of God is inconsistent and that God in this cense dees not exist. Hence, this argument is philosophically uninteresting.


1 have refuted a belief in God held by many philosophically unsophisticated people and this view of God may not correspond very well to what philosophers have meant by God. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the interest of the disproof. First of all, it may not be surprising that a common view of God is false. But that such a view is logically false is surely surprising–just as surprising as if one showed that people’s ordinary view of morality or space was inconsistent. (One does not suppose these concepts are self contradictory in ordinary thinking although one may suppose they are unclear, ambiguous, and confused). Secondly, it seems to me that part of a philosopher’s job (but surely not all) is to analyze and critically evaluate the views of people who are not philosophically sophisticated. This fact has been recognized at least since Socrates. Thus my disproof of God in the ordinary sense of ‘God’ does have some philosophical interest.

Objection (7)

There is no reason to suppose your analysis of God captures the ordinary sense of ‘God’ in our culture. In order to determine this sociological and anthropological evidence of a certain kind would be necessary. Since you do not produce such evidence one can well remain skeptical of your disproof of ordinary people’s belief in God.


It is true that I have not appealed to sociological or anthropological evidence to justify my thesis. No such evidence is available at the present time. The evidence that is available to me does suggest that I am correct. More reliable evidence when it is produced may change my mind. Meanwhile, one can at least evaluate the disproof hypothetically. One can ask: if this concept of God is the one implicit in ordinary thinking, is it true that God as is ordinarily conceived does not exist? The answer, as I have tried to show, is yes.

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