It Would be Necessary to Invent Him

On the Deception of the Conditional Mood

As we learn to speak, we find ourselves distinguishing between the words we say and the things we mean. “That isn’t what I meant,” we say. “What I really meant was…” and so follows a stream of words that means exactly the same thing. The new paraphrase is not “what we really meant,” it’s just more likely to convey what you really meant. But you only knew something was wrong because he scowled at you, or because she slapped you. Imagine a handful of words, chock full of nuance—what if we rarely thought about their different meanings? What if there were no simple paraphrase?

What if there were… it so happens that this is the handful of words I’m referring to.

When we use the present unreal tense, we imply that the converse is true. What if you were green? I’m not. What if you were to discover that your wife had left you? She hasn’t. There is a difference between these two, however—you accept that your wife could still leave you, but you do not accept that your skin could ever be a natural shade of green. One of them is unreal because it cannot be real; the other is unreal simply because it hasn’t happened.

There’s more to it than that. If we ask “what if you were in New York?” we think of this as a real possibility. There are people in New York, and I could easily be one of them. If we ask “what if you were green?” we are asking something that is not a real possibility, but that we can still imagine. If we ask “what if you were living in twelve dimensions?” we cannot answer the question, because we cannot properly imagine it.

What if there were no God?

* * *

There is a mistake that we make when debating the existence of God—we speak as if the two possibilities are real. We imagine two universes, one with a supreme being in the sky, and another with nothing but empty space. Yet the question is unlike any others we could ask. If God exists, there is no hypothetical universe in which he doesn’t. The very notion of a godless existence suddenly becomes nonsense, as if we were discussing breadless bread. There is only one existence, and there is nothing to compare it to.

If you hate math, just skip the next two paragraphs. They don’t say anything new.

In statistics, we use hypothesis testing to judge which of two hypotheses are correct. We assume that one of them (Ho) is true, and we test against some imagined alternative (HA). It’s supposed that they overlap, however. It’s possible that Ho might do something really strange, making it look like HA is true (type I – false positive), but we also might get an unusual result from HA that makes it look like Ho is true (type II – false negative).


No matter which hypothesis is true, we recognize that we might get an extraordinarily unlikely result, making it look like the other one is true. However, there was a probabilistic experiment conducted that produced an unlikely result—theoretically, it could have gone differently, leading us to the correct conclusion. Not so with the existence of God. We are stuck with the reality that we have, and the experiment cannot be repeated, because there is no experiment. There are no probabilities.  There is only what is.

This is profound, because it affects the way we understand “evidence” for the existence of God. If God exists, we cannot necessarily distinguish his fingerprints from anything, because his fingerprints are everywhere. [1] If God exists, we cannot say that the universe looks just as it would if he didn’t, for no such universe can be imagined. [2] Skeptics ask for evidence, but oftentimes they only want evidence that can be distinguished from the presumed godless universe that they hold in their lap. Perhaps they want violations of natural law, or indisputable special revelations. When these are claimed, however, they are met with such incredulity that it seems only absolute proof will do. If you demand this, you have already bypassed the real conversation. You are not starting an inquiry—you are stating a conclusion.

Countless people deny the existence of God, but it is not for lack of evidence. If we are to speak of evidence, we must admit that we are inside the puzzle itself, [3] and we must admit subjective evidence to the table. Some of the greatest evidence we use to make these conclusions amounts to “It is plain to me,” or “It seems this way to me.” Because we are debating about the uncaused cause, the root of all things, there are an infinite number of interpretations that fit the data. We can only judge them by the ring of truth that resonates when we sound each one. Circular reasoning cannot be avoided: our foundational assumption either floats freely in mid-air, or it grabs onto the beginning of the chain.

The burden of proof is not on the atheist, but neither is it on the theist, because whoever is given the burden of proof cannot build a case. When God is posited as an explanation for the universe, many skeptics raise an eyebrow and ask “Who made God?” Although they have (at best) forced a stalemate, they often claim victory because they have decided that atheism should be the default assumption [4] [5].

Voltaire wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” The statement hints that the world we live in has innate, non-negotiable properties. It is the way it is, but what we make of it may vary.


[1] This statement is credited to an unknown member of the Hart House Chorus, who, when I made this point, paraphrased it as such.

[2] Of course, rigorous scientific experiments also lack “real alternatives.” If we discover that the universe is a certain way, then this demolishes the possibility that it could have been any other way, and there is no universe to compare it to. Scientific experiments, however, are able to give us an answer to our question, because most of us agree on the criteria for making predictions. This is because they are much farther down in the causal chain, and we have already accepted a common perspective on how they will be affected by everything above them. There is no similar test when dealing with the prime cause.

[3] I am not especially familiar with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, but I believe they are related to this point.

[4] This brings us to Occam’s razor and the importance of time, which will be discussed elsewhere.

[5] One might point out that I could make a similar defense for the existence of invisible pink elephants, and since those are ludicrous, so is God. But I am talking about proof, and the ways that we construe evidence—not a total absence of anything that might be called evidence. There is a reason why we have many theists, numerous atheists, and no believers in invisible pink elephants.


4 Responses to “It Would be Necessary to Invent Him”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    It is the word “mood” you need, not “tense,” when referring to the conditional or subjunctive nature of a verb.

    I take it you’re familiar with the ontological argument? What do you make of it? I have an atheist philosopher friend who thinks it’s the stupidest thing, but I honestly don’t see why.

    Occam’s razor, huzzah! I shall be very curious to see how you connect it to time and Atheism. As of right now, I have no idea what you have in mind, but Occam’s razor is one of my very favorite metacognitive concepts.

  2. You are right. I changed it.

    The ontological argument gives me a headache. At first it just seemed like a clever trick that confounded the system–like dividing by zero–but now I’m not so sure. Bertrand Russel had an epiphany and accepted it when he was 18, though he went on to become the Bertrand Russel we’re more familiar with today.

    About the argument: I recently read that people tend to accept that if it’s at all possible that God could exist, then he does. They attempt to deconstruct it, rather, by arguing that the very idea of God is absurd. While I don’t concede this, I see where they’re coming from, and that’s probably the best place to argue about it.

  3. Stephanie Says:

    I read 1 Cor. 2 this morning, and it is almost astonishingly relevant to your thoughts here. Verse 15 stands out to me in particular, at the moment: “But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one.” Faith can make sense of other perspectives, but other perspectives cannot make sense of faith.

  4. Really awesome read! Honestly!

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