The Terrible Consequences of False Hidden Premises

A friend of mine recently sent me the following screenshot. It was an argument against the existence of God made by an atheist on the internet. An entertaining read just like every other piece of internet ‘scholarship’, here’s what it said:

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Now it might be evident to most of you that this is anything but a cogent argument; any attempt to debunk it would be to go after low-hanging fruit.

Yet, I believe there is some value in examining how this individual has made this argument. The reason I say that is because similar arguments are commonplace in blog posts and comment threads. And while they’re not good arguments, the way in which they are presented makes them sound so persuasive that the undiscerning reader can be easily misled to think that they’re good arguments.

The most common and discernable ways in which these bad arguments are made include appeals to emotion (such as, “God doesn’t exist because if He did, He wouldn’t have allowed little girls to be raped) and hasty generalizations (such as, “The Crusades, The Inquisition, 9/11, and the Boston bombings were all religiously-motivated. See how religion poisons everything?).

There is, however, another way in which these bad arguments are made, and while it is commonly used, it is not as easy to spot. It’s when the individual makes an argument that seems to contain all true premises, but the validity of the argument itself hinges upon certain hidden premises that turn out to be false. The argument above is an example of this, as might be many other arguments that you might have read and wondered, “Whatever he says seems to be true, yet there seems to be something off about the argument as a whole.”

So what I wish to do with the above argument is to show you how it is rendered unsound. As I mentioned before, my aim is not to debunk this specific argument but to merely demonstrate how it and similar arguments fail to prove their conclusion; debunking will occur in the process, but that will not be my end goal.

But before I do that, I must lay out the original argument as it was presented in that post.

The Argument

Let’s begin by identifying the arguments’s visible premises and examining whether they are true.

The first premise is rather verbosely laid out in the first four sentences, and can be faithfully simplified into the sentence, “The existence of God cannot be detected by any of our senses.”

The fifth sentence gives us the second premise in the form of a rhetorical question, which can be converted to the proposition, “Our senses are the only channel of detection,” (You can recognize that the question is rhetorical and that what he means to say is the proposition that I lay out from what he says in the next premise).

The sixth sentence gives us our first conclusion (and the third premise), which is, “The existence of any God cannot be detected,” and it is inferred from premise 1 and 2, (This confirms my observation that he believes that our senses are the only channel of detection; that is, premise two).

The seventh sentence gives us the second and final conclusion of his entire argument, which is, “Any belief in God is belief in a mere product of human imagination,” (that is, God does not exist in reality).

Put into standard form, the argument looks something like this (where Px stands for premise x and Cx stands for conclusion x, where is a number):


P1: The existence of God cannot be detected by any of our senses.

P2: Our senses are the only channel of detection.

Therefore,

C1/P3: The existence of God cannot be detected.  (from P1 and P2)

Therefore,

C2: Any belief in God is belief in a mere product of the human imagination.


Let’s examine the premises for truth. It is true that we cannot perceive God through our senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch, thus P1 is true. If the word ‘detect’ is used synonymously with the words ‘notice’ or ‘observe’ (as is used in everyday parlance), P2 is true, we detect things in the world around us only through our senses. If P1 and P2 are true, then C1/P3 follows; it is true that we cannot detect the existence of God with our senses, hence C1/P3 is true.

Yet, C2 doesn’t logically follow from any of these premises. That is, even through all three premises are true, we cannot directly infer from them that belief in God is a product of our imaginations. An argument whose final conclusion does not directly follow from its premises is an invalid argument. So this argument against the existence of God, as stated, is an invalid argument and collapses on its face.

But I do not want to dismiss it at that.

The Steelman

Perhaps the most desirable trait in any debater or philosopher is to treat their opponent’s arguments with the utmost charity; that is, it is imperative that we represent the views of our opponents in the best and strongest possible form. One way of doing this is by steelmanning your opponent’s argument. Rather than strawmanning your opponent (which would be to attack a version of the argument that is weaker than the one your opponent presented), you take the form of the argument that your opponent presented and lay it out in an even stronger form, thereby setting up a steel man for you to knock down, instead of just a straw man.

I intend to steelman this gentleman’s argument by attempting to make this invalid argument a valid argument, in which the final conclusion does logically follow from all the premises.

To do so, a premise P4 needs to be added after C1/P3 that allows for C2 to logically follow. Luckily for the argument, this doesn’t have to be a brand new premise, for I believe that the gentleman making this argument assumed a certain premise that he failed to show among the rest of the premises, but that is crucial to reaching the conclusion that he did. In logic, such a premise is known as a ‘hidden premise’, or a premise that is essential to reach the final conclusion, but is not explicitly mentioned in the argument itself. It is only upon the insertion of this hidden premise that an argument can be understood as valid.

In this argument, the hidden premise seems to be, “Belief in anything that cannot be detected is belief in a mere product of the human imagination.” This is an assumption that arises out of a rather extreme form of a philosophical theory called empiricism, which holds that all knowledge or rationally-acceptable beliefs must arise as a product of our sense experience, rather than our reason.

Let us now insert this premise, P4, into the argument and see how the latter becomes valid.


P1: The existence of God cannot be detected by any of our senses.

P2: Our senses are the only channel of detection.

Therefore,

C1/P3: The existence of God cannot be detected.  (from P1 and P2)

P4: “Belief in anything that cannot be detected is belief in a mere product of the human imagination.”

Therefore,

C2: Any belief in God is belief in a mere product of the human imagination. (from C1/P3 and P4)


As we can now see, C2 does follow from C1/P3 and P4. The argument is valid.

But validity is not the only criterion for an argument to be successful. Validity only tells us that the conclusion logically follows from the premises. It tells us nothing about whether the argument is sound, that is, whether the premises themselves are true; a false premise automatically results in an unsound argument.

So far, we’ve seen that P1, P2, and C1/P3, if very charitably interpreted, seem to be true. The premise we need to examine is the hidden premise P4 that we just brought to light.

The Test

So is it true that belief in any concept or proposition that cannot be empirically verified is belief in a product of the human imagination, that is, something that is untrue and unjustified?

First of all, that premise itself is self-defeating, and therefore false. Why? Well, the truth of that premise cannot be empirically verified; we cannot empirically verify the belief that any belief in anything that is not empirically verifiable is belief in a product of the human imagination.

To those of you who might not find that convincing enough, allow me to offer you an example to show you a case where something is empirically unverifiable, yet is also unquestionably true, because to deny its truth or to dismiss it as a mere product of human imagination would be logically absurd.

At the present, it is an empirically verifiable fact that the universe had a beginning, given observable evidence like cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) and cosmological redshift. However as Lawrence Krauss points out, in two trillion years or so, we will have zero empirical evidence for the Big Bang; all galaxies that are visible to us today will no longer be observable, and all evidence for the expansion of the universe (and by extension, evidence for the Big Bang) will be rendered undetectable. Once again, it will appear to all observers that the universe is static and has existed for all eternity.

Suppose that human beings are still around in those days, empiricists like the gentleman who made the argument will have to conclude that the universe is indeed eternal; after all, this is all that can be known by our senses. Anyone who claims otherwise will be told that they’re believing in nothing more than a product of their imagination, and that their belief is neither justified nor based on truth.

Yet, given the information we have in the present day, would the empiricists be right? Absolutely not. Relying solely on empirical verifiability actually leads them to believe in that which is false rather than the truth, hence it is not always true that believing solely in what is empirically verifiable results in knowledge.

But this does not mean that we have to turn to skepticism either; it does not mean that we give up all hope of possible knowledge about whether the universe had a beginning. There is still another way, the way of reason, by which we can infer that the universe had a beginning even if there were no empirical evidence.

Assume that the universe was indeed eternal. That would mean that there are an actually infinite number of events that extend from the present moment into what we call ‘the past’. Yet to believe that there could be an actually infinite number of past events results in logical absurdity; if there were an infinite number of events prior to the present, you would never actually get to the present (given that it takes an infinite amount of time to traverse an infinite number of events, so you’d be infinitely stuck in the past and the ‘present’ moment would never arrive). From the impossibility of traversing an actual infinity, we can infer that the universe cannot be eternal.

Thus, where empiricism fails at giving us truth, a rational or reason-based approach succeeds. The advantage of the rational method lies in the fact that it can be used at any time, even when the necessary evidence is not available; the empirical method is heavily dependent on the availability of the necessary evidence. So even two trillion years later, when there exists no empirical evidence to detect that the universe had a beginning, one can still rationally arrive at the fact that it is not eternal and therefore did have a beginning. So the hidden premise that all beliefs that are not empirically verifiable are false and unjustified fails. Mind you, it does not dismiss the importance of empirical verification, which is possible in many instances; it only shows that not all true things are empirically verifiable.

So what about the God issue? While it is true that we cannot detect God’s existence (we cannot smell, taste, see, feel, or hear God’s existence), are there any rational ways to get to the existence of God? It turns out that there are. One such argument is what is known as the contingency argument, popularized by people such as Thomas Aquinas and Gottfried Leibniz. A simplified version of the argument goes something like this:

  1. There exist contingent beings (or beings for which it is logically possible that they not exist).
  2. Given that it is logically possible for these beings not to exist, there must be a reason why they do exist.
  3. If every contingent being could be explained by another contingent being, we would have an infinite regress of explanations.
  4. An infinite regress of explanations still requires an ultimate explanation; to call an infinite regress a sufficient explanation of all that is in it would be fallacious.
  5. The ultimate explanation for the existence of all contingent beings, then, must be a non-contingent or necessary being; that is, a being for which it is logically impossible that it not exist, and that can explain the existence of everything other than itself.
  6. This necessary being is what we call God.

Nobody ‘detected’ God through their senses to reach the conclusion of this argument, but neither was it true that you had to conjure God up in your imagination to get to the same conclusion. All that was needed was to use widely-accepted facts from the world around you to reason to the existence of God.

Thus, the argument made by the gentleman which concluded that belief in any God is nothing but belief in a figment of one’s imagination was an unsound argument; it relied on a demonstrably false hidden premise that belief in anything except what can be detected by the senses is an unjustified belief in a mere product of one’s imagination.

The Verdict

One can say that the gentleman’s argument has been effectively debunked, but as I said earlier, it would be a shame if that was my only goal, because it was too easy a job to do. Instead, the goal of this piece was to show you one common way in which atheists often present their seemingly-persuasive arguments. This way involved presenting arguments with premises that seemed overwhelmingly true, but somehow reached a conclusion that sounded true but did not follow from any of the premises. This renders the argument invalid, but in the spirit of charity, we can attempt to steelman our opponent’s argument by trying to make it valid. In doing this, we find that there are hidden premises that the atheist has intentionally or unintentionally omitted from his overall argument. Upon insertion of these hidden premises, the argument turns out to be valid. But upon examining them for truth, it is the case that these premises turn out to be false, rendering the argument unsound.

So the next time you’re struggling with responding to an atheist’s argument against the existence of God or on any other issue, keep an eye out for any hidden premises that could potentially be false. You must also be careful to avoid having them in your own arguments. It is always better to be thorough in your argumentation and avoid the hiding of any of your premises, whether intentionally or unintentionally, so that your reasoning is clear and well delineated. Hidden premises always increase the risk of having an unsound argument, for their hiddenness often leads the arguer to overlook them while testing the rest of his premises for truth.

The bottom line is, show all your premises.

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