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I have been reading a bit of Dawkins and the like and they all seem to hold a very strong viewpoint on atheism and its associated ideology. I have not found a direct citation for this but he frequently make a very close connection, e.g.:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
The Blind Watchmaker (1986)

I myself do not see how atheism can be scientific in any way.

Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.
Atheism, Wikipedia.

The thing is, you cannot prove nor disprove this statement. It's an ethereal concept with no basis in scientific measurement by tests and observation. They seem to be asking a question that has no answer because the whole thing is based on faith.

Atheists point out that you cannot prove god exists nor disprove that Thor exists, which is true, so why are they answering this question in the first place and making a very strong connection to its scientific merit?

As I see it, atheism seems to have the same passion to try and persuade others of their ideology as any religion, with Dawkins even calling himself a militant atheist.

I think agnosticism seems to be the most scientific approach. What might be some reasons atheism could be considered to have a 'scientific' dimension?

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Dawkins on "Why do atheists care?" Not specifically answering your question but enlightening as to his views with regard to 'Militant Atheism'. –  Amazed Nov 21 '12 at 7:02
I read somewhere that Darwin himself was a committed Christian and feared that the publication of his theory would lend ammunition to those who would deny it. –  Mozibur Ullah Nov 30 '12 at 23:30
@MoziburUllah I didn't have this impression. Darwin certainly belonged to a strongly Christian society and feared the uproar that might come from his theory, but, according to Randal Keynes, "Annie's Box" his own lack of belief steadily increased throughout his life, especially in the grieving wake his childrens' deaths. The book also gave the impression that he struggled with the despair his views clearly brought to his devout wife. But, aside from in his early life when he fleetingly thought about becoming .... –  WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance Aug 19 '13 at 5:01
... an Anglican clergyman, the book give the impression that he didn't greatly care one way or the other about Christian faith. –  WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance Aug 19 '13 at 5:02
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8 Answers

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Whether atheism can be reached by scientific reasoning depends on whether scientific reasoning is the only way to form justified true belief. Can I only say that I know something if it can be scientifically demonstrated? More weakly, can I only know that a deity exists if that deity can be demonstrated scientifically? I cannot see an analytic argument which results in a "yes" to this question, so I must answer the main question with an overall no.

Science has a very high standard of description of phenomena. One way to explain this is that whatever the dimensionality or 'size' of a model, we need many more data points which match that model to some level of accuracy. To some extent, the choice of where to set the bar, above which one can claim 'knowledge', is a choice that individuals will have to make themselves. If we overlay some sort of purpose on top of this, then we can say that the bar ought to be set at some spot to optimally pursue said purpose. But is any purpose a given? No.

Science is not a complete philosophy. Think about it: "The only way to know something is through scientific reasoning." That statement itself is not obtained through scientific reasoning. Take the following from Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Known as Hume's fork, I believe this is a self-refuting statement: Hume's book contained nothing which would prevent it from being committed to the flames (possible objections). This idea is formalized in Gödel's second incompleteness theorem, which can be understood as saying that "truth is stronger than provability". Because we make use of arithmetic and provability, the second incompleteness theorem applies. I'm assuming that we'd prefer to not adopt a philosophy which is fundamentally inconsistent. So, there will always be true statements which cannot be proven to be true from any given set of axioms.

Anything which dictates what beliefs ought to be formed for the purpose of knowing reality will necessarily come from something 'bigger than' science. Therefore, atheism cannot be reached from scientific reasoning alone. Otherwise, we are in danger of saying things like, "Believing in one or more deities does not aid in the pursuit of science." This only supports disbelief in deities if life is nothing more than doing science, which is not a position held by very many people.

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Godel, Heinsberg , Kant ... mind blown . Thanks for your answer. –  gerdi Oct 15 '13 at 8:45
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"Atheism" is a lack of belief in deities. As such, it can come about in two ways.

  1. You can decide that you aren't convinced that any theory of the world which requires a deity is correct.

  2. You can become convinced that there cannot exist any correct theory of the world which requires a deity.

It is perfectly possible to adopt position #1 as a scientist, in exactly the same way that you might decide between two potential scientific theories: you examine the predictions of the theories and the evidence for how the world actually works, and you make an informed judgement as to whether a theory seems to work well, either on its own terms or compared to another. You can even tentatively adopt both theories if they are both compatible with the observed evidence (though you might want to bear in mind where and how much the two theories conflict); and you can also reject both theories, deciding that neither of them are even provisionally satisfactory.

In this regard, you can be an atheist simply because you see no particular reason to believe in god; you "have no need for that hypothesis". This doesn't necessarily entail that you reject all possible god-notions out of hand — although you may feel justified in being skeptical of them, just as you would be justified in skepticism of whether time-travel is possible based on awareness of the sorts of paradoxes it might give rise to. But this leads to position #2.

Position #2 is potentially non-scientific depending on how it is presented. But to determine whether or not it is scientific, we must ask some questions which make it even a candidate for scientific consideration, the most important of which is this: What is a god?

  • If a god has all manner of superlative attributes, such as omniscience and omnipotence, then it may fall prone to classical contradictions between such properties, and the debate comes down to whether you think logic is a suitable tool for reasoning about the world. This is the same sort of judgement as claiming that a perpetual motion machine is impossible — in both scenarios you have a theory (classical logic, or the laws of thermodynamics) and a proposed entity (a superlative god, a perpetual motion machine), and where you can use the one to rule out the other.

    This means that if the proposed entity exists, your theory was somehow flawed. And indeed, religious apologists tend to make statements such as "god is not subject to logic", whatever that means. But barring the discovery of such wonderful and extraordinary objects, we don't have any particular reason to suppose that the theory is wrong in the way that would be necessary to allow these things to exist.

  • If god is just the entire universe, and indeed we are a part of it, then fine; by definition god exists — but the same things could be said about unicorns, if we define unicorns also to be the entire universe (and we a part of it); that would also suffice to prove the existence of Unicorn, with a capital U. It becomes a word-game, and does not allow you to infer the sorts of things you might like to be able to claim about gods. The same problem applies if you define god to be an entire ecosystem, or anything which does not in any obvious way have interesting properties in common with the folklore exemplars such as Thor, Apollo, Yahweh, or Make-Make.

  • If you refuse to define the notion, then it becomes unreasonable to demand that someone accept the possibility that it exists, because you haven't really told them what it is that they are supposed to admit the possible existence for. Ignosticism is the philosophical position of refusing to make a judgement about gods before the definition is properly laid out; but it does still necessarily entail a lack of beleif in the unspecified thing.

The problem historically is that there are very few defenses of the existence of "gods" which do not fall in a camp such as these. Because scientists best respect those ideas which are clearly-presented, which have interesting and meaningful consequences, and which do not require the overturning of the tools which they find provide them with reliable results, it is often said that it is "scientific" to reject the existence of gods. It would be much more accurate to say that it is scientific to reject all of the most common arguments for gods, and that if there are any truly good arguments for gods, that they are not very well known even to skeptical people who take an interest in the subject.

Finally, if you consider "agnosticism" to be the position of being uncertain, then in fact this is certainly a more scientific position. But one can be an agnostic atheist, in the sense of considering "Yahweh doesn't exist and also Thor doesn't exist and also Apollo doesn't exist and also Make-Make doesn't exist and also..." the best hypothesis to act on, while being prepared to change your mind if Thor suddenly arrives at your office and allows you to test his hammer Mjöllnir to your satisfaction for fifty years or so, coming to the conclusion that there might have been something to that old Norse folklore after all. For that matter, a scientist should be agnostic about general relativity, and quantum mechanics, and string theory, and everything else; but that doesn't mean that they aren't allowed to form opinions, or that they have to pretend not to have any idea of how the world works at all.

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Once again, excellent answer. –  iphigenie Nov 15 '12 at 16:58
I am not to sure how you can be agnostic to general relativity in a scientific manner. We can clearly see and experiment on theories which exist in its construct. I do find that interesting if you mind maybe explaining it a bit more. Thanks –  gerdi Nov 16 '12 at 9:07
@gerdi: We can be agnostic about it for precisely the same reason that we now know that Newtonian gravity was wrong. Are the Einstein equations correct? All we can say is that we aren't presented with phenomena for which they obviously fail. (The problems with figuring out the global structure of the universe given the matter that we observe, not to mention the acceleration of the universe's expansion, are concievably a examples of a crisis in the waiting, as the precession of the perihelion of Mercury was for Newtonian gravity.) Relativity is our best theory, nothing more or less. –  Niel de Beaudrap Nov 16 '12 at 14:24
@NieldeBeaudrap cool –  gerdi Nov 17 '12 at 9:59
@MoziburUllah: you could define it as a range of frequencies of light; and if you think there's something more to redness than that, which he can never access, that's nothing he must concern himself with. Similarly for anyone who is not by nature inspired for any reason to religious belief; and if any god takes exception to that, it's presumably thee god's oversight that's to blame. –  Niel de Beaudrap Dec 1 '12 at 0:00
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There are inherent problems with attempting to prove or disprove metaphysical concepts using physical means. God, being a singular metaphysical concept, can neither be proved nor disproved by physical data.

However, attributes and acts of God can be called into question. For example if you believe an act of God is that He designs everything through a single time specific creative act, as in the story of Genesis, then this is a physical act that can be called into question and subject to scientific reasoning. If you base your belief in God on acts of God, then yes, you could use scientific data to prove or disprove God. But if you believe that God, being a metaphysical agent sitting outside time and space, could create outside the rules of physics, then the act of creation is outside science(dinosaur bones put there to test us for example)

Neither position is scientific, both are talking about metaphysics. If you take your epistemology to be entirely scientific then God is a non-question, and you are correct, agnosticism is the best position

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But Atheism , the non believe in deities, is the context of my question. Not the disprove through scientific means in a creation story of another faith. Basically what i would like to know is, why is the non belief in deities a more scientific approach then the belief in one? Both answer a question that is not scientific in nature yet one is considered a more scientific approach. I think agnosticism is the perfect neutral space for something like this. Or is wrong to assume this is the impression that Dawkins gives when he writes? –  gerdi Nov 15 '12 at 10:48
Apologies, my response isn't as clear as I meant it to be. Neither position is scientific, both are talking about metaphysics. If you take your epistemology to be entirely scientific then God is a non-question, you are correct, agnosticism is the best position –  pluke Nov 15 '12 at 11:06
but I should also say, that an epistemology based entirely on science is quite hard to maintain (this is for another thread I feel!) –  pluke Nov 15 '12 at 11:48
@pluke Maybe you should edit your answer and add that comment on science, atheism and agnosticism, that would make for an improvement (: –  iphigenie Nov 15 '12 at 16:02
Is 'god' in fact a singular metaphysical concept? What do you mean by 'singular' in this case? –  Niel de Beaudrap Nov 15 '12 at 17:24
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Is "God" (just) an ethereal concept?

I do not see how atheism can be scientific in any way. "Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities" (WP:Atheism) The thing is you cannot prove nor disprove this statement. Its is an ethereal concept with no bases in scientific measurement by tests and observation.

First, I take it that by "this statement" you refer to "God does exist" and the like.

Secondly, I understand your argument as roughly saying: Since "God does exist" is not truth-apt, neither is its negation "God doesn't exist".

If I may refer you to an historical antecedent, this point was made a long time ago about disputes over meaningless terms by Rudolf Carnap. What is often forgotten, is that Carnap made an interesting observation precisely over the meaning of the term God. He pointed out that the word is multi-layered, as it were, so that "God" is not just an "ethereal concept":

Another example [of meaningless terms] is the word "God." Here we must, apart from the variations of its usage within each domain, distinguish the linguistic usage in three different contexts or historical epochs, which however overlap temporally.

In its mythological use the word has a clear meaning. It, or parallel words in other languages, is sometimes used to denote physical beings which are enthroned on Mount Olympus, in Heaven or in Hades, and which are endowed with power, wisdom, goodness and happiness to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes the word also refers to spiritual beings which, indeed, do not have manlike bodies, yet manifest themselves nevertheless somehow in the things or processes of the visible world and are therefore empirically verifiable.

In its metaphysical use, on the other hand, the word "God" refers to something beyond experience. The word is deliberately divested of its reference to a physical being or to a spiritual being that is immanent in the physical. And as it is not given a new meaning, it becomes meaningless. To be sure, it often looks as though the word "God" had a meaning even in metaphysics. But the definitions which are set up prove on closer inspection to be pseudo-definitions. They lead either to logically illegitimate combinations of words (of which we shall treat later) or to other metaphysical words (e.g. "primordial basis," "the absolute," "the unconditioned," "the autonomous," "the self-dependent" and so forth), but in no case to the truth-conditions of its elementary sentences. In the case of this word not even the first requirement of logic is met, that is the requirement to specify its syntax, i.e. the form of its occurrence in elementary sentences. An elementary sentence would here have to be of the form "x is a God"; yet, the metaphysician either rejects this form entirely without substituting another, or if he accepts it he neglects to indicate the syntactical category of the variable x. [p. 4|5] (Categories are, for example, material things, properties of things, relations between things, numbers etc.).

The theological usage of the word "God" falls between its mythological and its metaphysical usage. There is no distinctive meaning here, but an oscillation from one of the mentioned two uses to the other. Several theologians have a clearly empirical (in our terminology, "mythological") concept of God. In this case there are no pseudo-statements; but the disadvantage for the theologian lies in the circumstance that according to this interpretation the statements of theology are empirical and hence are subject to the judgment of empirical science. The linguistic usage of other theologians is clearly metaphysical. Others again do not speak in any definite way, whether this is because they follow now this, now that linguistic usage, or because they express themselves in terms whose usage is not clearly classifiable since it tends towards both sides.

Rudolf Carnap, "The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language", 1932

Please note that one doesn't need to swallow the whole verificationist framework in order to find this analysis pertinent for the question at hand. The distinction between metaphysical and mythological meaning isn't necessarily based on any strict verificationist assumption. We can certainly enlarge our understanding of empirical existence to include theoretical concepts (electrons, strings) and social facts (the existence of five dollar bills, being married to someone). We can even enlarge our understanding of existence to the non empirical domain to include fantastical concepts (unicorns, etc.), such that e.g. in "some sense" we can say true things about Sherlock Holmes.

I'd think that Dawkins & Co. attack the "empirical" viz. "mythological" meaning of God and the question of its existence and in that respect negative claims of the kind "God (most probably) doesn't exist" or "I don't believe in the existence of God" make sense.

Arguing that this kind of "empirical meaning" of God is nowhere implied in the theological discussion today seems to me to miss the mark. For it is certainly not the case that "the whole thing is based on faith" as you say: The existence of God is supported by references to any kind of phenomenological effects in the domain of human experience. Or, to take the semantic spin: They submit that sentences about God are truth-apt.

Now, the proponent in these discussions can always retreat to a "metaphysical" (in the above parlance) understanding of God, but in doing so the whole concept looses much of its punch and relevance. And I would submit that Dawkin & Co. have no particular problem with this metaphysical understanding of God, that's not the target they are after.

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"this statement" was the definition for atheism. I am not referring to "you refer to "God does exist" and the like." "Secondly, I understand your argument as roughly saying: Since "God does exist" is not truth-apt, neither is it negation "God doesn't exist". This was not so much an argument as a question. I cant seem to understand a scientific view on non scientific concept. –  gerdi Nov 16 '12 at 9:53
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It all depends on the definition of atheism.

I do not share your definition of atheism in its broadest sense as a rejection of belief in deities.

In its broadest sense, atheism merely states not making a positive claim of the necessary existence of any deity.

An atheist is simply not a theist. Nothing more, nothing less. An atheist does not necessarily know he is an atheist, as he may just have not been introduced to a certain god concept.

Is such a position scientific viable: Yes, as each hypothesis must have some merit in explaining world we live in. The god-hypothesis does not solve any problem, it obscures it. Replace a god did it with a with wizard did it and it would be such as revealing.

Does it mean that each atheist acts scientifically? No, because an atheist still can uphold other irrational views. Such as homeopathy, astrology or conspiracy theories.

As to arguing that agnosticism would be the scientific position, well, this too stems from your strict definition of atheism as rejection of belief. Just ask some self-proclaimed atheists, and you realize that many, and I, disagree with that notion.

Also there is this misconception that agnosticism would be some kind of middle ground. Agnosticism is the notion that something cannot be known. Not that one is unsure which of multiple positions is true.

I would argue that atheism entails rational agnosticism as a subset. Since if you think something cannot be known, it would be irrational to claim "I think it cannot be known, but I believe it is true independent from any evidence whatsoever".

What I very much do reject is the notion that Darwin made it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist". There were many before him that were had enough reason enough to be atheistic, e.g. in Ancient Greece.

Darwin merely made a strong argument for evolution which contradicts many but not all religions. Evolution in itself has nothing to do with atheism. Assuming evolution would not have been discovered as of yet, I would still be an atheist. Confronted with the question of the origin of our species I would simply state: "I do not know."

As with everything: Stating that one does not know is often the rational decision. Introducing a god to fill that gap is not necessary.

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Something to add to pluke's answer:

The "scientific method" is to only believe what you can prove (and to actively try to disprove any hypothesis). So although you can't disprove that God exists, if you can't prove it, it is more in line with that principle to disbelieve it than to believe it.

So I agree 100% that God can neither be proven to exist, or not to exist, but to apply Occam's razor and believe the simpler -and closer to physical proofs that DO exist- theories, the more scientific we are being.

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"To only believe what you can prove" is positivism, not 'the scientific method'. The so-called scientific method is meant to be to attempt carefully to test hypotheses, and then reject hypotheses which don't hold up to testing, which is much more like falsificationalism. If there is to be some sort of "correct" scientific position on the subject of gods, I would say it is Laplacian indifference: there's no particular use in contemplating the hypothesis. –  Niel de Beaudrap Nov 15 '12 at 16:21
@NieldeBeaudrap - I don't disagree, the "correct" position does seem to be indifference, (or "most correct", maybe?) - the question was whether atheism was "more correct" than a belief, which I believe it is, given the lack of evidence. I don't think it can be called scientific at all to believe something without any evidence supporting it (evidence that doesn't fit into some other system of belief more comfortably). –  Ryno Nov 16 '12 at 10:22
scientific method is limited to only empirical prove. but God may be proved by non-empirical methods mostly in labs. if God is not made of material then basically can not be proved by scientific method or in lab. –  Battle of Karbala Nov 29 '12 at 11:53
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Agnosticism was coined by T. H. Huxley. It was morally repugnant the insistence of the orthodox that their dogmas required sheer unswerving acceptance, and that breakdowns in argument or intelligibility were simply occasions for the exercise of an intensified faith. T. H. Huxley was forthright. In “Agnosticism and Christianity” he wrote, “I, and many other Agnostics, believe that faith, in this sense, is an abomination.” A growing mass of data and theory supplied by the physical sciences was prima facie at variance with biblical history and cosmology. There was the new time scale of geology, the impersonal and amoral Darwinian evolutionary theory, and the radical textual, historical criticism of the Bible itself. For Huxley agnosticism was “not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle”: Reason should be followed “as far as it can take you,” but undemonstrable conclusions should not be treated as if they were certain.

Justifying agnosticism as a philosophical position requires a careful investigation of the limits of our cognitive powers. Specifically, it must be shown that human reason is simply incapable of reaching either affirmative or negative judgments concerning the existence of the God of traditional theism. Statements about the god of traditional theism, or other supernatural entities are neither analytic nor empirically verifiable in principle. Naturalism’s basic thesis is that the only things about which reliable knowledge can be obtained are things that can be investigated by the methods of science. The supernatural eludes investigation by the methods of science. Since naturalists tend to hold that the only individual things of whose existence we have reliable knowledge are physical things, the conclusion is drawn that the existence or nonexistence of a god is unknowable, then there are no sufficient truth-conducive reasons to support belief.

No one ought to hold a belief on insufficient evidence. Why the believer feels compelled to use the extraordinary language he does use? It has become much unconvincing to use religious experience as an argument to a god’s reality. Naturalistic forms of explanation, have been proposed for religious experience; and analogies are often drawn between religious or mystical experiences and drug induced or pathologically abnormal states of consciousness. Philosophical sense still needs to be made of the connecting of revealed content with the alleged divine source.

Religious people say a good many mysterious things about their Absolute, things that, by their own account, were strictly unsayable. Problems arise when it is claimed that ultimate reality or God are altogether beyond all conceptual descriptions. This kind of strict ineffability is incoherent, because to be described as ineffable is itself a description. We have good reason for thinking there can be no such ineffable X ‘out there’. It is very difficult to see what use positing an ultimately ineffable X would have, religiously, practically, philosophically or scientifically. Very few religions rule out in principle all conceptualizing of God, even if they are quite wary of such theorizing, and so philosophers they still engage in conceptual analysis when they are already cut off from the religions they are attempting to explore philosophically. The questions here are not questions of credibility but of conceivability. Notions such as self-existence of a god and creation of universe by an external agency involve symbolic conceptions of the illegitimate and illusive kind. This justify to describe as atheist one who rejects religion on the grounds that talk about a god is unverifiable talk, or that the concept god contains inner illogicalities.

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It is not in anyway scientific. It just happens that science self appointed spokespeople tend to be atheist. TO think science teaches atheism is to insult thousands upon thousands of religious people all over the world.

The thing is, you cannot prove nor disprove this statement. It's an ethereal concept with no basis in scientific measurement by tests and observation. They seem to be asking a question that has no answer because the whole thing is based on faith.

I disagree with this. It is very much provable. The problem is when you think that somehow the scientific method is going to give you an answer to this. The scientific method cannot say much to this in the same way as science cannot tell you who to vote for. This does not mean just because the scientific method is ill equipped to explain who to vote for you cannot know who to vote for. It means their is boundaries or limits to what the method can try to explain.

If I can use an example to illustrate my point. You can ask the question... What scientific evidence is their that Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939? None? Therefore Poland was not invaded in 1939? or it is impossible to know if Poland was invaded in 1939? No you need a different method to prove a different type of query.

Atheists point out that you cannot prove god exists nor disprove that Thor exists, which is true, so why are they answering this question in the first place and making a very strong connection to its scientific merit?

You can very easily prove that Thor does not exist and the Christianity's ideas of God does exist. You have not proven every goss darn religion false if you prove that Thor does not exist. Is it hard to believe that different religions have different merits and that one can be true and others not?

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how is it provable? I am not too sure on your example of Poland. That does not seem to make sense. That action is very provable."On 8 October, after an initial period of military administration, Germany directly annexed western Poland and the former Free City of Danzig and placed the remaining block of territory under the administration of the newly established General Government.". This action was actually the start of WW2 as Poland had alliances France and the United Kingdom –  gerdi Oct 14 '13 at 9:48
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