How can we prove anything?
Why can't you prove God?
The snowstorm - a hermeneutic perspective
“Two men are sitting in a bar somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. One is religious, the other an atheist, and the two discuss the existence of God with that peculiar persistence that sets in after, say, the fourth beer.
Says the atheist: “Watch out, it's not like I've never experimented with God or prayer. Last month I got into such a terrible snowstorm far away from the camp, I couldn't see anything, got totally lost, forty degrees below zero, and then I did it, I tried it: I'm in the snow on my knees and screamed: 'God, if you exist, I'll be stuck in this blizzard and die if you don't help me!' "
The religious man in the bar looks puzzled at the atheist: "Well, then you have to believe in him now," he says. "After all, you're sitting here alive and well."
The atheist rolls his eyes as if the religious guy were the last fool: "Nonsense, man, a couple of Eskimos just happened to come by and showed me the way back to the camp."1
The American writer David Foster Wallace tells this story in his book This Is Water to make two things clear.
First: If a person claims to have had an experience of God, then this statement is his interpretation of an experience. An atheist does exactly the same thing: he interprets his experience, but arrives at an interpretation in which God does not play a role. This is the reason why the conversation between the believer and the atheist in history fails. Both interlocutors insist on their interpretations, both want to keep the interpretation sovereignty.
Second, Wallace goes one step further by asking why we have interpreted it. Why do I choose to see God's intervention in this situation? And vice versa: Why do I choose not to see God's intervention in this situation? The question is important because it makes us aware that we can decide on what basis we make our interpretations.
No one is born a Christian, and no one is born an atheist. My individual values are not predetermined by hardwires in my brain, to which I am fatefully at the mercy. My eye color and my blood group are given to me by my chromosomes, but not my ideological views. It is part of a mature personality development that a person can take a step back from their own convictions and take a critical distance from them. Anyone who is capable of such self-reflection can provide information about the criteria that led them to their decision.
This ability to leave one's own point of view and put oneself in the focus of the other person's perspective without adopting their worldview is the prerequisite for mutual understanding.
The same applies to the interpretation of events as experiences of God as to the interpretation of religious texts. The philosopher Odo Marquard put forward the thesis in his essay “Question about the question to which hermeneutics is the answer” that today's multitude of possible interpretations of a biblical text is the result of the Thirty Years' War. This “denominational civil war” has made it clear: “The righteousness of the truth claim of the clear interpretation of the absolute text can be fatal.”2
The result was a pluralizing hermeneutics that can be talked about and no longer makes a claim to absoluteness that is necessary for salvation. The question that is taken for granted today, “Isn't it possible to understand this text in another way?” Enables a multitude of possible interpretations. The same applies to the interpretation of biographical events such as the encounter with “Eskimos in a snowstorm”.
=> Why can't one prove God? First answer: Because the term “God” is an interpretation category that does not objectively depict a situation, but rather interprets it subjectively and at the same time puts it into perspective. Chance and fate also fall into the same interpretative category.
The thermometer - a scientific perspective
Wise of God already existed in the Middle Ages. Their task, however, was not to convince an atheist of the existence of God, but to help doubting Christians gain certainty in their faith. The basic idea that there is a God was given by church teaching in the Christian Middle Ages. The proofs of God had the task of overcoming doubts about God's existence through rational knowledge. They should prove that reason comes to the same result that belief always proceeds from. So there was no contradiction between faith and reason, but they led on different paths to the same goal. He who only believes and does not understand can get into religious doubts; but whoever believes and knows with reason can overcome these doubts of faith.
One of the most important historically of effects is the so-called ontological proof of God by Anselm of Canterbury. He wants to show that God is not only a thought in the mind of a Christian, but that he also exists outside of the mind in reality. Anselm starts from the term "God" to show that the concept of God automatically includes the existence of God. A thing that only exists in the head as an idea is less than a thing that exists in reality. A unicorn that I can think with my mind is less than a unicorn that I actually come across in traffic. This example already makes it clear that not every concept that I can think of has a real existence. This is different with the concept of God. Anselm assumes that God is “beyond which nothing greater can be thought” (aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit).3 With this formula Anselm tries to bridge the gap between what is in the understanding (in intellectu) and what is in reality (in re) existence.
If something is so great that there cannot be anything greater than that, then it is God. If it is not the greatest, because something greater is still conceivable, then it is not God. Which is greater: God who exists as a thought in my mind but not outside of my mind in reality, or God who exists as a thought in my mind and outside of my mind in reality?
If that is what God is by definition, and beyond that nothing greater can be thought, then God is not only a thought of faith, but then also corresponds to this thought a reality (et in intellectu et in re).
The term “proof of God” is first and foremost a specialist theological term that tries to reconcile faith and reason.
With the emergence of the natural sciences through the Enlightenment, the meaning of the term “proof” changed fundamentally. It is now becoming a technical term within the scientific methodology that makes experiment evidence. All natural sciences and all technology are based on a methodical atheism. And that's a good thing, because a car mechanic should fix defective brakes instead of praying for them to work again. God does not appear in the industrial production process of nuclear power plants, medicines and baby food. It must not appear in it because modern times have methodically separated the medieval symbiosis of reason and belief.
The normal boiling temperature of water is 100 degrees Celsius; this can be shown with the help of a thermometer. It is completely irrelevant whether a student in chemistry class in Sydney or a chemistry professor in Hamburg or a star chef in Marseille holds a thermometer in boiling water.4
The speed of sound is 330 meters per second. This can be shown with the help of a stopwatch, a tape measure, a sound source and a microphone. Anyone who doubts these statements must prove the opposite by means of experiments.
It is more difficult to prove the existence of things. Whales and dolphins live in the confusing ocean, but a stranded whale or a dolphin caught in a fishing net are clear evidence.
How do you prove the existence of herrings when the mesh size of the net is ten by ten centimeters? The pegs slip through the mesh. To conclude from this that there were no herrings is utter nonsense, because the mesh size is unsuitable as evidence; a smaller-meshed network is required. That sounds banal, but it poses an insurmountable problem for the question of proof of God. What “mesh size” do I need to be able to prove God? The answer presupposes that I know what I am looking for and what the “size” and quality of what I am looking for is. This leads to the fundamental question: Is the instrument with which I want to measure and prove actually appropriate for the object? Even a chemistry professor cannot prove that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius with just a tape measure. But how should one prove the existence of God?
The problem that atheism has in this context is, by the way, even greater, because it is logically almost impossible to prove that something does not exist. The regular flare-up discussions about Nessie or UFOs bear testimony to this.
=> Why can't one prove God? Second answer: Because scientific evidence is based on a methodical atheism and because there is no instrument for a proof of God within the categories of space and time.
The crane - a speculative perspective
Richard Dawkins is an American evolutionary biologist who is highly regarded as a scientist. He teaches as a professor at Oxford and has received various recognized science awards.
At the same time he is considered to be one of the leading representatives of the so-called "New Atheism". His book “Der Gotteswahn” made him known beyond the boundaries of the department. In this book he attacks the religions, especially Christianity in its evangelical and fundamentalist appearance. Dawkins assumes that all life on this planet has evolved and evolved. This biological law of nature applies to all forms of life.
Dawkins compares the development of intelligent life to a crane. Just as a construction crane is built step by step, element by element and gains height, so all intelligent life has emerged from simple forms of life and has developed higher over the course of millions of years.5
Intelligent living beings can only ever stand at the end of this development, never at the beginning. For this reason, according to Dawkins, it cannot have been a god who created the world in the beginning.
For Dawkins, gods are more highly developed forms of life that are worshiped as gods by less developed forms of life because they exceed their understanding. But of course they are not gods. A farmer in Luther's time would have called a smartphone magic or a divine miracle. Likewise, Moses and Jesus were thought to be miracle workers by their contemporaries.
Science colleagues have rightly accused Dawkins of improperly crossing the boundaries of science. With his theses he ignores the difference between immanence and transcendence. Natural sciences are tied to the categories of space, time and causality. Whether there is a transcendent reality can be debated philosophically and theologically, but it cannot be proven or refuted using scientific methods.
The evolutionary development of life can be understood from a scientific perspective of the ashes in the urn at a funeral ceremony in a cemetery. Ash is made of carbon. It is one of the most important basic chemical elements in the human body. But simple carbon compounds are not alive. Only from a certain level of complexity and in connection with other chemical elements, which are also not alive in themselves, do they begin to live, grow and reproduce. Philosophy describes this qualitative leap as emergence: inanimate elements come together to form something living.
Another emergence is the emergence of consciousness. Both trees and people live. But man is aware of this and can think about himself. The path leads from a lifeless carbon compound to a self-reflective self-awareness. From an evolutionary perspective, the question is open at which stage of development this self-awareness begins. In biblical times it was clearly established that only humans have reason and that this distinguishes them from animals. Behavioral biology has impressively shown that not only the great apes recognize themselves in a mirror. Even elephants who have been drawn a circle with chalk on their left ear, while they are standing in front of a mirror, try to touch this circle on their left ear with their trunk - mind you, on their ear and not on the mirror image!6 So you can distinguish between yourself and the picture in the mirror. Mind and reason also seem to have developed evolutionarily, so that the boundaries between species with and without self-awareness are fluid.
Dawkins calls natural selection the most capable crane of all time. He's probably right. Creatures in the water that develop fins over the course of millions of years have a selection advantage over creatures that can only allow themselves to be drifted in the water by the current, because the fins enable a targeted escape from predators and increase the chance of their own genes to pass on to the next generation.
The same applies to living beings that develop eyes, because they can see their predators from a distance; At the same time, the ability to see facilitates the search for a partner and thus genetic reproduction.
From an evolutionary perspective, fins are the organic answer to the water in which animals live and which existed long before aquatic animals. The same applies to the eyes. About 500 million years ago, the first living things developed an organic response to the light of the sun. Goethe already pointed out this inner connection in 1822 in his Zahmen Xenien:
If the eye were not sunlit,
The sun cannot see it;
If there was not God's own strength in us,
How can the divine delight us?7
For Goethe, the developmental relationship between the sun and the eye forms an analogy to the relationship between the divine and the inner human being, which is receptive to the divine. It is worth pursuing this thought further. If our body organs are a material answer to our environment, then the crucial question is: what is our human brain the organic answer to? Perhaps the spirit that existed before the Big Bang, before matter, before the sun and before the water, and which over the course of millions of years produced an organ as an answer? So is our brain the organ in which the mind thinks itself with the material means of carbon compounds and other chemical elements?
Jörg Zink answers this question in his book “Die Urkraft des Heiligen. Christian Faith in the 21st Century "as follows:" I am convinced: Wherever and whenever a person, seized by what he has recognized, conceives the thought of God who is close to him, this thought is nothing other than a thought of God himself Awareness of that person. How should a person seriously think 'God' if God did not think in him? "8
=> Why can't one prove God? Third answer: Because I do not think God, but God thinks me and through me thinks himself.
- Wallace, This is water / This is water, 12f.
- Marquard, Farewell to Principles, 130.
- Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion c. II.
- Since the boiling point depends on the air pressure and the normal boiling temperature applies at a normal pressure of 1013hPa, three cities are named in the example that are at sea level. On the top of Mount Everest, water boils at around 80 degrees Celsius.
- See Dawkins, Der Gotteswahn, 106.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EjukzL-bJc (26.06.2020).
- Nicolai, Goethe's Poems, 556.
- Zinc, The Primordial Power of the Holy, 158f.
- Canterbury, Anselm von: Proslogion c. II; from: Anselm of Canterbury, Monologion. Proslogion. Reason and the existence of God; inserted, trans. and explained by Rudolf Allers, Cologne 1966
- Dawkins, Richard: Der Gotteswahn, 6th edition Berlin 2009
- Marquard, Odo: Farewell to the principle. Philosophical Studies, Stuttgart 1991
- Nicolai, Heinz (ed.): Goethe's poems in chronological order, 2nd edition of the special edition for the 150th anniversary of his death, Frankfurt / M. 1982
- Wallace, David Foster: Das hier ist Wasser / This is water, Cologne 2012
- zinc, Jörg: The primal power of the sacred. Christian Faith in the 21st Century, Stuttgart 2003
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