Can one prove a negative?

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by Neil Godfrey

R.G. Price argues that you can: Is it really impossible to “prove a negative”?

I think you can, too. Anyone who is innocent of a crime they are standing trial for sure as hell wants a negative proved, too.

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19 thoughts on “Can one prove a negative?”

  1. Proof is a concept applicable to closed systems like mathematics and logic. It is no more than an approximate descriptor in the natural world. Science does not prove anything. At most it establishes that there is a vanishingly small probability that something is or is not true. We will never prove that Jesus did not exist. We can only show that it is highly unlikely that he did.

    1. @Paxton
      That’s fine, but by this definition we haven’t proven that the earth revolves around the sun, that the earth is round, that people exist, that that cars can travel faster than snails, etc. Essentially, what you are saying is simply retreating into a view that nothing can be proven, but this just becomes a meaningless tautology.

      And this is also part of my point. Those that claim basically that “Jesus could be anyone” as a final defense of his “potential” existence have essentially re-defined Jesus in a meaningless way. That’s changing the definition of a word.

      It’s like saying snails can be faster than cheetahs if a cheetahs is a rock or faster means slower. “You can’t really say that cheetahs are faster than snails, because when *I* say cheetah I mean a piece of slime, see, your’re wrong!!! Neener neener!”

      It’s just stupidity at that point.

      If define Jesus in any meaningful way, the existence of that person can be disproved.

      And you’re still missing the main point, which is that Jesus didn’t exist by proving that the Jesus worshiped by James, Paul, the author of Hebrews, etc. was a celestial deity. And even if you don’t think there is enough existing evidence to prove that, you can’t deny that it is ultimately possible to prove that.

      For example, if a document was found that was conclusively dated to something like 10 CE that explicitly said something like, “We worship the Lord Jesus Christ, who is a heavenly ruler and has never been incarnate, who was crucified in the heavens…”

      That would be decisive evidence that Jesus wasn’t a real person. Agreed?

      You may argue that it hasn’t been done, but you can’t argue that it can’t be done.

  2. An interesting question to raise but..and a big but …we need some context for it being raised. Moreover, how does this question relate to the issue of having to dis-prove something “happened” or was “said” in alleged historical contexts by this or that person???.

    The “proof” issue has been raised. Mr. Paxton Marshall. Nice to meet you. I am both a student and credentialed scholar of the Jewish-Christian Scriptures and Cognate Texts.(not a Christian professor or pastor anymore though).

    I don’t know if you are the same Paxton Marshall involved in the question of Jesus’ existence, etc. and personality as a character of ancient texts that I have seen on UTube from time to time. Again, nice to meet you via this communication.

    Could you tell us bloggers here how you know we will never prove that Jesus did not exist? We have proved at the present time many things do not exist. You would agree. Pretty solid right?

    Lay out your reasons for all of us serious searchers who are seeking to live lives of intellectual integrity and trying to make a helpful and hopeful influence in the world. I get the sense you are a man who wants to help the human race evolve further yet towards being enlightened by info brought to light for all of us caught in various forms of ignorance or as I would like to more carefully and compassionately put it….”un-knowing-ness about this or that aspect of reality.

    Thanks again “Neil”…You do stir the pot of gold…don’t you…. performing your own magic smiles…

    Cheers “Bible Lovers”…Don’t deny it now.!!!….

    Much greetings to all participants here.

  3. Paxton is correct to say “We will never prove that Jesus did not exist.”

    The concept of “proof” is useful and has meaning in Law and in Mathematics.

    It should not be used in Science.

    It assumes a level of certainty that is not appropriate in modern Philosophy of Science.

    Since History is a scientific discipline (when done properly), it is also a mistake to talk about historical events being proven.

    1. So we can’t prove that George Washington was the first president of the United States? We can’t prove that the Holocaust really happened? We can’t prove that life existed on earth 1,000 years ago?

      Again, retreating into the claim that nothing is provable is just nonsense.

      Would you agree that Jesus being first worshiped as a real person and Jesus being first worshiped as a celestial deity are two mutually exclusive things. Both cannot be true.

      Would you agree that the statements, “The worship of a celestial Jesus originated with the worship of a person,” and “The worship of a celestial Jesus originated with interpretation of scriptures,” are mutually exclusive?

      I would argue that both of the sets of statements I provided are mutually exclusive. In both sets only one of the statements can be true. If one of them is proven to be true, then by definition the other is proven to be false.

      I would argue that is is possible to prove those statements to be true or false.

      It can be proven that the worship of Jesus began with the worship of a celestial being whose identity was derived from the interpretation of scriptures. That can be proven. I would argue that it has been proven. But even if you don’t think that is has been proven, surely you agree that it can be proven.

      So if it is proven that the original Jesus was a celestial deity derived from scriptures, then by definition it is proven that *any* Jesus of Christianity never existed as a real person.

      I would argue quite strongly that *the* Jesus of Christianity has already been easily disproved. *The* Jesus of Christianity has an explicit definition, and it is proven that someone matching that definition never existed. The issue is the theoretical *any* Jesus, but even the theoretical *any* Jesus is disproved by proving that the original Jesus was a celestial deity.

      1. In real life situations, what we really mean by ‘proof’ is ‘convincing enough evidence’. Basically if you can think of a an alternative explanation that’s not ruled out by evidence, there’s still room for uncertainty. Anything you can think of including conspiracy, supernatural, extraterrestial, brains in vats etc.

        That doesn’t change much though, arguing against overwhelming evidence with mere possibility is foolish in most cases.

  4. Science and History are similar in that they involve study of concepts by methods of investigation via principles to try to be objective as possible. They can both make judgements about whether phenomena are highly likely or highly unlikely so as to be true or false.

  5. Perhaps I should rename my book from “Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed” to “Deciphering the Gospels Establishes with Certainty Equal to that of Our Certainty that the Earth Revolves Around the Sun, that Jesus Never Existed”.

    1. I’m not sure if I know the correct English term, shorthand, mental shortcut?

      Anyway, that’s why we use these shorthands in natural language communication – being always as precise as it gets would be totally impractical.
      I bet most readers will assume you don’t mean exactly 100% certainty, so the above statements are roughly equivalent.

      1. Yeah, well I would hope so, but you’d be surprised how many people argue with me over this point. And they call end up saying stuff like, “science can’t prove anything”, “Nothing in history is proven”, “only mathematics can be proven”, etc., etc., which is just absurd.

    2. Maybe I’m splitting hairs again, but in fact the earth does not revolve around the sun. Earth and sun revolve around a common center of gravity. But the matter is further complicated by the fact that the motion of both earth and sun is affected by the gravitational influence of other bodies as well. So if you set out to get data to prove that the earth rotates around the sun, you will not find it, unless your model includes all those other influences as well.

      So what do we mean when we say Jesus did it did not exist? If he is a composite based on exemplary members of the early Christian community, does that count as existing? Ideal characters are based in part on real characters. Even if he was completely fictional, he represented a model of human moral behavior that was unique and the time, and remains compelling.

      I will read your book.

    1. Yes, I agree R.G. Price. Sorry Mr. Riddel and Mr. Paxton I simply can’t buy your claims that we can’t prove or disprove whether Jesus existed or not. We have to use what present data is available to us. I won’t retreat into total agnosticism re such matters.

      Paxton said:” Science does not prove anything. At most it establishes that there is a vanishingly small probability that something is or is not true.”

      You have got to be kidding me! I can scientifically and logically prove that your statement is silly and leads to nonsense and solipcism! by simply showing you what science and history have proved in many cases.

      So Mr. Paxton,Riddel Do you think you are looking only at your eye’s reflection when looking at the moon or planet through a telescope? You mean you can’t look at that object outside of you and say there is the proof? Come on now? I don’t want to get into a big debate here about the reality and necessity of engaging in empirical research to prove things.

      Again, how do you know we will never prove Jesus existed or not? Jesus’ alleged existence could be more easily proved than “god’s” existence given that this Jesus character was an alleged historical figure.

      You can’t go around making such claims without backing them up.

      I would also like a clear explanation as to this other statement by Lowen Gartner.

      “I prefer to think about explanatory power rather than proof.” How does an explanation equal proof? If that is what you are saying….Data has to be explained but the data is not the same as the explanation. Please clarify…

  6. I greatly appreciate this discussion. I can see that while I may have been technically correct regarding proof, I was also being a literalist and splitting hairs. I was reacting to too many people misusing the concept of proof. I still think it unlikely that we will ever have conclusive evidence as to whether or not Jesus actually existed.

  7. One can “prove” a negative in the sense that absence of evidence can, indeed, be evidence of absence when the event under discussion would leave evidence of the event.

    If I were to claim that I murdered someone and put them in the back seat of my car, then when the car is opened evidence of that event should be present. If there is no evidence present–no blood, no tissue, hair, forensic evidence of any kind–then one can reasonably infer that the event did not, in fact, happen.

    If someone were to wander about Palestine healing the sick, feeding multitudes, raising the dead, etc., etc., we should expect to find some evidence thereof. After all, these are major events. SOMEONE would have noticed and reported same. If, after diligently searching and finding no evidence that such occurred (except one fanciful tale written by True Believers), then we can safely assume that no such man actually existed.

    It’s not “proof” in the strictest sense, but we have as much evidence for Paul Bunyan, and we all pretty much agree that there was no such person.

    1. @Elganned
      That’s not really the issue either. You “prove negatives” by proving mutually exclusive statements.

      If you are accused of robbing a bank in downtown Springfield at 10:00 am, you don’t prove that you didn’t do it by trying to establish exactly who was at the bank at that time and showing that you aren’t among those people. You do it by proving that you were in Jonestown at 10:00 am on that day. Since you cannot be in two places at one time, the fact that you are proven to have been at Jonestown at that time necessarily proves that you were not at the bank in Springfield at that time.

      Likewise, if it is proven that the first worshipers of Jesus did not consider him a human being, but rather they considered him a celestial being, then it is proven that Jesus “never existed”.

      Actually the case is more like this:

      You are accused of robbing a bank. There are 4 witnesses who claim that they saw you do it.

      To prove that you did not do it you need to:

      Step 1: Prove that the testimony of the 4 witnesses is false.
      Step 2: Prove that you were at a different place at that time.

      What the case I lay out in my book focuses on is step 1 – proving that the testimony of the witnesses (the Gospels) is false. I then spend some time giving an overview of step 2 – proving that Jesus was originally conceived of as an immaterial celestial deity.

      But really the case for step 2 is best made by Doherty, Carrier and others. My view is that while the evidence for step 2 has been strong for many years, what had not yet been successfully done was step. That’s where my book comes in. My book I think pretty solidly demolishes the idea that the Gospel contain an ounce of history or that they are based on any real Jesus person. With the Gospels and all other “biographies” of Jesus solidly disproved, the evidence that Jesus was originally a celestial deity is definitive.

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