Penn Jillette of the magician duo “Penn and Teller” has given an interview (back in 2005) to NPR on why he does not believe in God. Along the way, he evinces some misunderstandings and fallacious appeals. What are those misunderstandings?
First, Penn claims atheism is “not believing in God.” Aside from the fact this is the non-traditional definition, it also ignores the fact that theism is the proposition “God exists,” while atheism is negating that proposition. The position he describes more closely resembles that of classic agnosticism. Further, he fails to distinguish atheism from agnosticism on this view (what makes one different from the other on this view?).
Next, he oversimplifies when he claims one cannot prove a negative. First, this is self-refuting, for “one cannot prove a negative” is itself a negative proposition. So, either it is false or we must conclude that “one cannot prove a negative” strictly cannot be proven. In either case we need not believe it. But perhaps what he really means is only in the realm of existence. That is also false. If a being can be shown to be incoherent, then it is logically impossible for it to exist, and hence one has proven that being’s non-existence.
Perhaps then Jillette would say God’s existence is coherent, but yet one cannot prove a logically coherent being does not exist. As his example, he postulates an elephant in his trunk. Yet such a being is defeasible in the sense that all one must do is open the trunk. That is one way to prove a being does not exist; if the parameters are of a sufficiently limited scope, one may examine those parameters and see if such a being exists. He then proposes to redefine elephant to include abstract properties and a “spare tire.” But in that case we can still prove the non-existence of a being. If a being has the essential property of being a spare tire, and there is no spare tire in the trunk, then there is no such being in the trunk!
Third, Jillette admits his belief that no God exists is a leap of faith. The reasons he gives for not believing in God are mostly pragmatic and are at times puzzling. For instance, he offers that his atheism does not prevent him from being happy. But why think that what one ought to believe in order to be rational comports with happiness? Or that if a belief makes you happy, it therefore ought to be considered true, or at least not plausibly false? He also claims atheism prevents him from being solipsistic. This is truly baffling, as there seems to be no link between belief in God and belief in other minds, except to say that if one believes in God then he believes in other minds!
He continues on to set a straw man, implying Christians claim belief in their “imaginary friend.” I know of no Christians who think God is imaginary. He sets up a false choice between no God and a God who “causes” suffering. He simply does not bother to show why this must be the case. He then claims that no God means the possibility of less suffering in the future. But this is not at all clear. After all, on atheism, sooner or later, man will go extinct and the heat death of the universe will take over. Ultimately, suffering and death win. There is no physical possibility to avoid it. Penn’s view is really just rhetoric, and not particularly good rhetoric at that. It’s what passes for New Atheism these days.
 It is also not at all clear he understands the meaning of the term from the paragraph in which the term appears.
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