Stanley and Livingston had been observing the picturesque clearing for over two weeks, from the safety of their makeshift hideout.
"We've seen no one at all," said Stanley, "and the clearing has not deteriorated in any way. Now will you finally admit that you were wrong: no gardener tends this site."
"My dear Stanley," replied Livingston, "remember I did allow that it might be an invisible gardener."
"But this gardener has made not even the quietist of noises nor disturbed so much as a single leaf. Thus, I maintain, it is no gardener at all."
"My invisible gardener," continued Livingston, "is also silent and intangible."
Stanley was exasperated. "Damn it! What the hell is the difference between a silent, invisible, intangible gardener and no gardener at all?"
"Easy," replied the serene Livingston. "One looks after gardens. The other does not."
"Dr. Livingston, I presume," said Stanley with a sigh, "will therefore have no objection if I swiftly dispatch him to a soundless, odourless, invisible, and intangible heaven."
From the murderous look in Stanley's eye, he was not entirely joking.
Source: "Theology and Falsification" by Antony Flew, republished in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, 1955.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 133.
Obviously, this is a story meant to mimic the ones religious people tell about their gods. As you can see in the source citation, this thought experiment was brought up by Antony Flew who wrote the article "Theology and Falsification," which "argued that claims about God were merely vacuous where they could not be tested for truth or falsehood." Over on the blog Philosophical Disquisitions, academic philosopher John Danaher summarised the argument this way: "Many religious utterances...appear to be assertions or explanations for what we observe, but often undergo "death by a thousand qualifications" when confronted with evidence to the contrary. This renders the utterances meaningless, vacuous, and devoid of empirical or theological content."
Agreed. I've already written blog posts about the evolution of religion, the arguments for religion that all fail, and my hope for a world without religion, and then in my Response to Thought Experiment 9: Good God, we saw how Euthyphro's Dilemma from Plato showed that gods are not needed to explain goodness. Here now, we're seeing how the traditional concepts of gods have taken steps away from all the rest of the aspects of reality too. We've seen no evidence of gods from scientific observations of places and times as small as clearings in the woods for a few weeks, all the way up now to the expansion of the universe ever since the Big Bang. The proposed tangible qualities of gods has in turn been forced to shrink to ever smaller holes in our knowledge, towards what has become known as the god of the gaps, a form of the argument from ignorance fallacy. Gaps will always exist in what we know, but as I talked about in my Response to Thought Experiment 28: The Nightmare Scenario, I have little patience for non-falsifiable stories from philosophers invented to entertain us about the things we don't know, and I have even less patience for such stories from theologians looking to tell us what to do. So, feel free to trot this thought experiment out to your favourite believer if you're looking for an argument with them, but it'd probably be more fun to share instead this fantastic song called God of the Gaps, by the fascinating Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman off his album "The Rap Guide to Religion." It does a great job of tracing the arc of human definitions of gods from when they existed everywhere all the way to the tiny point of invisible nothingness that they occupy in my life now. Till next week...enjoy!