Monday, January 17, 2011

Universes and the equivocation fallacy

I said I was going to comment on this in the Episode #692 thread, but the comment got way too long. So here's a full post.

In the most recent episode, a caller named Peter from New Zealand tried to prove that there is no God. Side comment: I have to say, I get really impatient with this topic, almost as much as attempts to prove that God does exist. Both pro- and anti-God arguments usually hinge on the notion that you can "prove" or "disprove" the existence of physical things through pure reason, without respect to the things that you actually observe in the universe. Augustine was really into this concept, and it was a big deal sometime around the Renaissance. But basically the rise of science was based on a recognition of the fact that our model of the universe is always going to be tentative, so we should build up a system that recognizes facts as more or less likely to be true based on their support through observation. There is never, ever, going to be some kind of successful argument purely of the form "A is A, therefore Bigfoot exists / doesn't exist." Proving things in the real world requires that you look at things in the real world.

Look, guys, 200 generations of philosophers have tried and failed to both conclusively prove and disprove the existence of God. If you think you have solved the problem all by yourself, you are most likely not only wrong but sounding completely ridiculous. Learn to live with uncertainty.


Peter in particular was making a fallacy which is extremely common in theistic arguments against scientific cosmology. Namely, he was making an equivocation fallacy on the word "universe."Early in the call, he says: "My definition of the universe is 'that which exists.'" That's fine, and it's certainly ONE legitimate definition of the word universe.

But as his argument unfolds, he wants to apply that same definition to the claim that "God created the universe." Then, the argument goes, obviously that is logically contradictory since God cannot create the universe if he is part of the universe.

To quote another caller: No, no, no, no, no. You're done.

The theistic claim that God created the universe applies to THIS, current, physical universe that we inhabit. That is a completely separate definition of the word "universe" from the one he started with. You cannot claim that you are using one meaning of a word, only to turn around and apply a different one. That's what the equivocation fallacy means.

Here, let make this more concrete. Peter was starting more or less from definition #4 of "universe": "Logic: the aggregate of all the objects, attributes, and relations assumed or implied in a given discussion." I.e., "Universe" = "Everything." But "God created the universe" implies definition #1: "The totality of known or supposed objects and phenomena throughout space; the cosmos." That's not the same universe!

Let me put it another way. Science fiction and fantasy fans frequently refer to the "universe" that encapsulates a particular set of characters, history, and rules. For example, the universe of "Lord of the Rings" contains Middle Earth, Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, and all that deadly dull stuff in the Silmarillion. Fans of Joss Whedon's work refer to "the Buffyverse" (or sometimes "the Whedonverse") which contains the events of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and comic books, as well as Angel, and possibly (depending on how liberal you get) Dollhouse as well. Fans of David Weber's Honor Harrington character call his books the Honorverse. Etc.

Here's the point: J.R.R. Tolkien simply does not exist inside the Hobbitverse. Joss Whedon does not exist inside the Buffyverse. David Weber does not exist in the Honorverse. Certainly it is relevant and appropriate to speak about Joss Whedon during a discussion of Buffy, but Joss still does not occupy the same universe that Buffy does. (There are apparent exceptions, of course. But even if an author writes a version of him or herself into a story universe, it's still not really the author; merely a character who happens to bear the same name and some characteristics.)

In the 1977 movie "Oh God," George Burns appears as an unassuming man who turns out to be God. It is fair to say that in the universe(4) of "Oh God," God exists. It is also fair to say that within the context of that story, God created the universe(1). But you still can't confuse the two definitions with each other, and that's why Peter's argument is not good.

Within the universe of the fictional story known as "The Bible," there is a character called God. That character created the universe (i.e., the cosmos). I think we can all agree on this from a literary point of view. Christians only differ in the sense that they believe that the Bible is non-fiction, or in other words, we are living in a universe that is accurately portrayed by the Bible. If that were true, then God would exist within this universe(4) but not within this universe(1).

And now that I have beaten this topic to death, go forth and equivocate no more.


  1. That particular conversation would have been less annoying if the caller got what Matt was trying to say within the first 50 rounds.

  2. Good gravy! Do all us New Zealanders sound like that over the phone? I'm never going to get laid again! =( (p.s. Not a dig on Peter personally... our country got the shit end of the stick when it comes to accents!)

    But yeah, what Russell said. It's a bit like the 'first cause' argument; everything in the universe needs a cause, except for God who conveniently doesn't need one. Except in this case, we've got a God who 'exists' out side of existence and isn't subject to the physical laws of the universe. Same ol' game of three-card monte.

    If an apologist posited such a God to me, I'd want to know how they obtained such information. But then again, there are probably much better arguments.

  3. Christian's believe the Universe was created when god sneezed which then created what we call the big bang. Furthermore, this alleged being exist's everywhere in our physical universe(especially on Earth) yet no place because he exist's outside of spacetime(he is in a timeless place called heaven). This contradiction reminds me of things in quantum physics...occupying two opposing states at the same time.

    These dicussions require some heavy lifting, technical expertise and understandings that can be mind boggling to think about.

  4. Yeah, I made this almost the same mistake not too long ago, but for me it was about existence and the universe. Basically, I defined what I could conceive as existing. I define existence as either actually within the universe (the set of everything which takes up space-time) or linguistically as ideas (objects of thought). I thought that Christian Logos was outside my definition of existence because it had created a special third category of being outside space-time and being more than an object of thought.

    Of course, heaven is imaginable, but I was caught by problem of infinity, ectoplasmic divine nothingness, possibility of thinking without a brain, and other issues for this third reality which has a metaphysics that break almost every limitation (or law) on the physical universe.

    I see where the caller is coming from. The problem from arguing from definitions is that words serve those who use them. One is not alone in demanding clear and technical definitions of words. In early modern philosophy, Francis Bacon in The New Organon explained this phenomenon of using "ill and unfit" definitions of words as the basis of argumentation about nature of things. He called it the Idol of the Marketplace.

    As Bacon writes: "...the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies." (Francis Bacon's The New Organon, aphorism XLIII)

  5. I intend to convey in my top comment, that I made the same mistake in trying to restrict the possibilities with definitions, that many people make this mistake, that clear definitions help, and that Francis Bacon wanted people to avoid this argument from definition.

    Religionists do it too. Like the arguments about the nature of morality, meaning, and happiness are often defined in a way to make atheism look dreadful and theism the only escape from nihilism.

  6. These dicussions require some heavy lifting, technical expertise and understandings that can be mind boggling to think about.

    Actually, I think the problem is not so much that the actual points under discussion are all that impenetrable. Rather, it's very easy for someone who's got a little background in academia to put forth superficially persuasive arguments that are full of misdirection, and it is hard to figure out exactly where the bullshit is located.

    It is a lot like this guy in high school who used to constantly present me with "proofs" that 1=0. Usually these proofs would involve a long sequence of assertions and inferences which are mostly valid, but there is always a tricky step where the proof would divide by zero, or raise both sides to the power of zero, or something like that which invalidates the proof in the general case.

    These "proofs" can really get quite sophisticated, and if they're advanced enough then they may even require knowledge of calculus or some such thing that most people don't know. But they're still deliberately fallacious, and it doesn't take a lot of advanced math to understand that there's a problem, since 1 is not 0.

  7. Eric: Thanks for that Francis Bacon quote. it's a point which I have struggled to express. I figured someone must have been able to state it clearly. I am always very irritated by these arguments from definition.

    I think that anyone who claims that he/she can prove the existence or non-existence of a god should be first required to prove that they themselves exist.

  8. Eric: What I had in mind about theists using the same "universe" equivocation is this:

    Theist: "Where did the universe(ambiguous) come from?"
    Atheist: "Unknown. There are many possibilities, including X, Y, Z, and the universe(4) always existed.'"
    Theist: "Gotcha! Big bang theory means scientists all believe that the universe(1) had a beginning!"

    The theist is technically correct, but equivocating. If there is a metaverse, or other, parallel universes, or an oscillating universe, then it could be that this universe had a beginning, while the universe (the set of all things that exist) didn't have a beginning.

  9. I guess I'm not very liberal, because I just don't think there's anything in "Dollhouse" that would lead us to believe that it takes place in the Buffyverse. I mean, c'mon, are you saying Echo is actually Faith? Don't be ridiculous. :)

  10. Equivocation's a step up from having no definitions at all. Proving god exists: the universe exists, god is the universe, therefore god exists. Easy.

  11. I've got to disagree on a couple of points.
    First, while I accept that any proposed proof of the existence of something should make reference to observations about the physical world in order to be considered sound, I do not accept the equivalent claim about proposed proofs of nonexistence. After all, if an entity is sufficiently well-defined as to be provably logically contradictory, then there is no possible physical evidence which could ever indicate its existence, hence we can conclude it does not exist.
    This is not to say anything specific about the caller's argument, as one should always be wary of defining the gods of others.

    Secondly, the only way we can take the implication "god created the universe(1) therefore god is not a part of the universe(1)" as valid is if we assume that closed timelike curves (colloquially referred to as a "predestination paradox" in scifi time-travel lingo) are impossible.
    If you have a good reason for ruling out closed timelike curves, I'd be interested in hearing it, as the only thing I've heard about them from any scientific source is that Kurt Godel proved that relativity alone cannot rule them out.

  12. Thanks, Russell...I wish I'd thought of the Buffyverse-like analogies.

    I was telling Beth, as we left the show, that I'm no more impressed by clever attempts to prove the non-existence of gods (excluding god definitions that are clearly contradictory) than I am by clever attempts to prove the existence of a god.

    Glad I'm not alone. :)

  13. I'd like to point out that some definitions of God may be vulnerable to logical disproof because they are self-contradictory (like our old friend the pink invisible unicorn: "pink" and "invisible" cannot simultaneously obtain about the same object in the same way).

    However, only definitions of God which are very specific or philosophically unusual are really vulnerable to this problem. A really generic and physically grounded definition like "an intelligent creator of the observable universe" is not vulnerable in this way, for precisely the reason you mention. Gods that are nothing but really powerful people (like Zeus) are especially not impossible.

  14. Sean, Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can't see them. — Steve Eley

  15. arguments usually hinge on the notion that you can "prove" or "disprove" the existence of physical things through pure reason

    This gets under my skin also. The arguments are so tenuous and one incorrect assumption or ill defined premise sends the whole thing skittering into pointless mind excercise oblivion. Despite this, people keep yammering away as if when the case is presented correctly god will appear in front of me (or the opposite). It's like they try to talk something into or out of existence in leiu of analyzing things that we can actually perceive literally.

    It's sometimes a fun little excercise, but far too easily fuffed up to take as any sort of evidence IMO.

  16. I wish I could describe better why evidence is an important piece of why something should be considered true or not. Logic is an impressive and useful tool for discovering truth, but only if all the assertions are true and none of the logical rules are broken. With no possible observation, no accurate claim can be made about the truth of an assertion, so all the logic in the world cannot help.

    Of course when I tell the theist I have to put the untestable god in with all other untestable ideas, from Santa to invisible unicorns, he thinks I am making fun of him and misses the point entirely.

    Great post. It is at the heart of why I consider myself a skeptical atheist.

  17. @John K.

    I wish I could describe better why evidence is an important piece of why something should be considered true or not.

    Let me take a stab at an analogy.

    Ok, here it goes.

    Logic and reason is like a treasure map, with "X" marking the spot.

    Evidence is actually digging up and finding the treasure.

    The treasure doesn't spontaneously pop into existence because the map says so.

  18. @Minus: "I think that anyone who claims that he/she can prove the existence or non-existence of a god should be first required to prove that they themselves exist."

    This is self-refuting.

  19. "The treasure doesn't spontaneously pop into existence because the map says so."

    But the particle can pop into existence if the quantum physicist says so.

  20. @JT

    Not bad. I can tell you get it. Why theists remain baffled by this kind of example I fear I will never know.

    I don't think telling someone that their concept of god is like a treasure map that leads to a place that cannot be reached will go over well, though. This kind of reminds me of Harris' "gold boulder buried in the back yard" analogy.

  21. I think his problem was the thought experiment of using computer programing logic to tackle the issue. His argument that God's knowledge of the universe requires so much space that it surpass the dimensions of the universe itself was problematic. First, God is claimed to be a consciousness without a physical mind - I can't fathom how this could be represented in the model he suggests. Perhaps more basic is the fact that in our world- Data does not equal matter. All the data of a beaver does not require a beaver worth of space. Perhaps he should have used a procedural generating universe analogy.
    The use of programing logic is interesting, but one must be careful in it's use.

  22. Crazy random thoughts..

    Maybe, god is an aggregiate of all the matter and or radiation in our universe? The random radio noise that we find in our known universe is really part of god and that is what gives/progams life into biological creatures?

    Maybe, god can be everywhere and yet nowhere in our universe because our brains and eyes are like black box recorders with transmitters that god can observe in heaven(outside of spacetime) or gets uploaded to god when we die..the all seeing eye of god..but might not work on the blind.

  23. @מיכאל - I love the beaver worth of space idea. The next time I'm shopping for memory or a hard drive I'm going to use that. "I need at least 50 terra-beavers of space, what do you have that can handle that?" I can't wait to see their reaction. :)

  24. But wait! The Dark Tower universe, created by Stephen King, contains Stephen King as a character who is creating the Dark Tower universe... Ow, my head!

  25. Yes yes, "Author Avatar," which is a term that I linked in the TV tropes site from the original post, means that sometimes authors write themselves as a character in their own books. But that's just what it is: an avatar, a character who shares your name and characteristics and thinks a lot like you. Still, no amount of writing will ever literally take YOU out of the world you're actually in and put you into the world you've invented.


PLEASE NOTE: The Atheist Experience has moved to a new location, and this blog is now closed to comments. To participate in future discussions, please visit

This blog encourages believers who disagree with us to comment. However, anonymous comments are disallowed to weed out cowardly flamers who hide behind anonymity. Commenters will only be banned when they've demonstrated they're nothing more than trolls whose behavior is intentionally offensive to the blog's readership.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.