The Universal Negative: Can It Be Proven?

by Shawn Ferguson

Atheists and sceptics sometimes claim that it’s impossible to prove a universal negative. This, they assert, relieves them of the burden of proof when they claim that God does not exist. They think it’s a savvy move, leaving them with nothing to defend and placing the entire burden of proof upon the theist, who is clearly making a positive claim. This is a mistake on their part, because, apart from being false, in the end it does more damage to their cause than good.

The first order of business is to define a universal negative. A universal negative in this context is any claim that something doesn’t exist. So, when the atheist claims that God doesn’t exist, this is a universal negative—it asserts that it is universally true that there is no being in existence matching the description of God—and need not, indeed cannot, be proven.

It should already be apparent that there’s a problem here for the claimant that it’s impossible to prove a universal negative: the claim is itself an unmistakable universal negative. The claim just is that it’s universally true that there exists no universal negative that can be proven. So by its own principle, if true, the claim cannot be proven, and thus has little to attract our assent.

But let’s leave that objection aside for the moment and look at the claim a little more deeply. Is it true that there is no universal negative which can be proven? No. This is demonstrably false. Consider the claim that no circular triangles exist. This is a universal negative. It claims that it is universally true that there are no triangles in existence which are also circular, and here’s a proof for it:

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1. If an object does not have exactly three sides and three angles, then it cannot be a triangle.

2. A circular object does not have exactly three sides and three angles.

3. Therefore, a circular object cannot be a triangle.

This is a deductively valid argument with all true premises[i], thus guaranteeing the truth of the conclusion. A universal negative has just been proven. In fact, any universal negative can be proven to be true if it can be shown to lead to an internal contradiction, just as we did for the circular triangle.

Ironically, the very same atheists and sceptics who claim that a universal negative cannot be proven will often turn around and attempt to offer a proof of the universal negative that God does not exist; they do this in the form of the problem of evil and suffering. This argument is an attempt to show that the very idea of an all-loving, all-powerful God is incompatible with the existence of the evil and suffering which permeates our existence. The basic argument is that an all-loving God wouldn’t want to permit evil and suffering, and an all-powerful God could ensure that it wasn’t permitted; but it is permitted, clearly, so there mustn’t be a God who is both all-powerful and all-loving.

Of course, the argument doesn’t work, but that’s not our interest here. What we find interesting is that this attempted proof is an exercise in the very thing that is often said to be impossible: proving a universal negative. They can’t have it both ways…

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Faith Beyond Belief: The Universal Negative: Can It Be Proven?