Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Null Hypothesis

One thing that I hear pretty frequently from atheist circles is that given the question of God, since there is no evidence supporting that hypothesis (something I'd contest, anyway) they simply select the null hypothesis saying that there is no God. On the face of it that kind of formulation seems pretty reasonable. - it even has the nice scientific jargon to make it look like it holds authority, but what really is the question and the real null hypothesis?

The real question is not "Does God exist?" - but "How can we explain existence?" and "What is the nature of existence?" If these were taken to be scientific questions then scientific hypotheses in the form of the numerous theological theories out there could be used to answer them. And the null hypothesis? The null hypothesis is that existence and its nature are due to nothing but chance. The null hypothesis is not the rejection of another hypothesis, but the statistical assertion that chance alone is responsible for the results. Even the claiming of ignorance does not a null hypothesis make. It is the assertion of chance.

Now, maybe some people find the chance assertion to be reasonable, but I don't. There are way too many awesome things happening in our universe to chock it all up to luck. Even in the absence of stringent scientific results, I am lead to believe that the null hypothesis is missing something big.

Furthermore, of course, the atheist must still explain how chance itself can operate in non-existence which 'preceded' our universe. Usually they will posit some sort of Superuniverse which has the power to produce a great number of universes and we just lucked out that one was made which could support life.

But one must note how this Superuniverse Hypothesis is no longer a null hypothesis at all - it is a very specific idea about the higher order of existence. And, of course, it must be noted that this hypothesis has no scientific evidence to support it. So why should they accept this hypothesis with its same dearth of evidence (I would say a worse dearth) over any God Hypothesis which they so strongly object to? They only prefer the Superuniverse because it leaves out God, not because of any inner strength to the idea.

It's hardly a scientific issue - it's just philosophical bias.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

Straw man much?

Orthoprax said...

Not at all.

Benjamin said...

The first glaring mistake is the use of chance. Take evolution for example. Many theists who posit intelligent design claim that evolution is simply chance. However, it is quite the opposite. It is a set of forces which drive change. This is as far from chance as possible.

The second part I take issue with is the idea that anyone of any ilk can explain what 'preceded' our universe. Being that we cannot reach outside our universe, anyones idea of what might be out there is pure conjecture, god, multiverses, etc. Its all a guess, none of which should be believed as true. However, with that said, the point of hypothesizing about a multiverse is simply to show that not knowing doesn't imply god. On the contrary, it implies nothing since there could be any number of explinations.

Orthoprax said...

Ben,

"The first glaring mistake is the use of chance."

If one is claiming to assume the null hypothesis then one is saying that they believe the difference between existence and non-existence (and order vs no order) is due to chance. That's just the definition.

"Being that we cannot reach outside our universe, anyones idea of what might be out there is pure conjecture, god, multiverses, etc."

And yet we still seek an explanation. I don't believe it to be 'pure' conjecture, but it is speculation.

"Its all a guess, none of which should be believed as true."

Not on scientific grounds, you mean. Surely you can imagine other reasons besides pure science to decide whether something is true or not - at least operationally.

"However, with that said, the point of hypothesizing about a multiverse is simply to show that not knowing doesn't imply god. On the contrary, it implies nothing since there could be any number of explinations."

No, actually, fundamentally you can only pick among a few options - perhaps even only a couple of real options.

The Barefoot Bum said...

The null hypothesis is indeed chance. It's obviously rejected.

The next question is what constitutes the least hypothesis. We must compare the existence of "God" against alternative hypotheses to find which most parsimoniously explains the evidence.

The comparison of "God" to chance is indeed a straw man and a fallacy of the excluded middle.

Jewish Atheist said...

Atheists don't have to disbelieve any potential causes, if any, other than the God hypotheses. Typically, we also disbelieve in the supernatural in general. Whatever happened/happens outside (or before) the universe is not relevant, so long as it is not God.

Orthoprax said...

Barefoot,

Ok, so what kind of alternative hypothesis are you suggesting to fill that middle? The Multiuniverse one? I covered that in my post.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"Whatever happened/happens outside (or before) the universe is not relevant, so long as it is not God."

Exactly - that's a philosophical stand, not a scientifically-based assertion.

Jewish Atheist said...

Who said atheism was a scientifically-based assertion?

Orthoprax said...

JA,

The point is that through adopting atheism one has to effectively form some hypothesis of how the universe came to be. (Technically you don't have to, but practically you do.) And the fact is that with virtually any hypothesis one adopts, one is making assertions not based in evidence.

So why is there this bias against hypotheses that include God? They are _at least_ as (if not more) probable as compared to the apparently favored Multiverse hypothesis. Why do you rule them out as a matter of course?

As I said in the post, atheists will offen refer to the null hypothesis to supposedly give themselves the scientific leeway to not consider any God hypothesis - but that is a bankrupt approach. It's not scientific at all.

Anonymous said...

I think the main point of atheism is not that God didn't create the universe, but once the universe was created it runs on autopilot. What gave the initial push we will most probably never know. But one can object to supernatural events occurring in the world after it was created.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

I don't know what the 'point' of atheism could be, but you are not describing atheism.

I also think that the word 'supernatural' is abused in debate and I don't think the term is useful. We don't even know the limits of what is naturally possible so what is the difference between a supernatural event vs an extremely unlikely natural event?

Jewish Atheist said...

The point is that through adopting atheism one has to effectively form some hypothesis of how the universe came to be. (Technically you don't have to, but practically you do.)

That's not remotely true. In the almost complete absence of data, forming hypotheses is premature. I mean, it's fun to talk about branes or previous universes or multiverses or being an atom in the toenail of a five-year-old in another universe, but it's all just guesswork at this point.

So why is there this bias against hypotheses that include God?

The same reason there's a bias against hypotheses that include God in every other area of science. Because the supernatural cannot be scientific, by definition.

As I said in the post, atheists will offen refer to the null hypothesis to supposedly give themselves the scientific leeway to not consider any God hypothesis - but that is a bankrupt approach. It's not scientific at all.

I agree with the first poster that this is a bit of a strawman. I don't think anybody argues that we shouldn't even consider whether God exists. However, that doesn't make it a scientific hypothesis any more than Intelligent Falling (rather than gravity) is.

I also think that the word 'supernatural' is abused in debate and I don't think the term is useful. We don't even know the limits of what is naturally possible so what is the difference between a supernatural event vs an extremely unlikely natural event?

Hey, it's not the atheists who came up with "supernatural." But if God is not supernatural -- say he's merely a very intelligent being in some unimaginable universe, well, that's not really God, or at least it's not the God that atheists disbelieve in.

A lot of this is just terminology. Your idea of "God" appears to have nothing in common with what 90% of people mean when they say "God." If you want to call the first cause (if any) "God" or the universe itself "God," then obviously "God" exists (or may exist.) But that's not the "God" that atheists are talking about.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"That's not remotely true. In the almost complete absence of data, forming hypotheses is premature."

In terms of science, that's true. In terms of how you live you life, not so true. We are constantly forming hypotheses and relying on personal theories that are remote from any data.

But, that said, I don't believe that the origins of the universe lacks all data. We are missing direct data, but the nature of our world is potentially useful indirect data.

"The same reason there's a bias against hypotheses that include God in every other area of science. Because the supernatural cannot be scientific, by definition."

Except, perhaps, when we are talking about the origins of _nature_ in the first place, hmm? I don't see how you can escape the 'supernatural.' Unless you are saying that science should not explore this question.

"I agree with the first poster that this is a bit of a strawman. I don't think anybody argues that we shouldn't even consider whether God exists. However, that doesn't make it a scientific hypothesis any more than Intelligent Falling (rather than gravity) is."

No, the point is that atheists claim that it is unreasonable to presume that God is involved in creation because there's no data. But, in actual fact, it's just as reasonable (I might posit more reasonable) as alternative hypotheses which they favor - for no apparent reason than philosophical bias.

You personally may feel no need to form or accept any hypothesis, even operationally, but that makes you an exception. It makes a big difference in many people's lives. Though I figure that you do care in general - i.e. any school of hypotheses you accept does not have God in it, but beyond that it is no longer a meaningful discussion.

"A lot of this is just terminology. Your idea of "God" appears to have nothing in common with what 90% of people mean when they say "God.""

Fundamentally the issue where God is relevant is whether (and how) the origins of existence relate to how we (ought to) live our lives. In that respect I agree with most theists that it does matter, while you may see the issue as entirely irrelevant.

The precise metaphysics of my conceptions vs others is of far lesser importance though it may ruffle some dogmatic feathers.

XGH said...

You are way over-analyzing. It's really very simple. Nobody has any idea where the universe came from. Even worse, it's probably not even something that we have the brain capacity to comprehend, if there was some alien/god who could even explain it to us. So faced with that situation, the most rational response is to simply say "I don't know'. Once you say 'I don't know', that doesn't include God, Thor, or the flying spaghetti monster.

Orthoprax said...

GH,

One can fully admit ignorance while still accepting some scenario as a working theory. In this respect religion plays its role.

Jewish Atheist said...

In terms of science, that's true. In terms of how you live you life, not so true. We are constantly forming hypotheses and relying on personal theories that are remote from any data.

I don't think that's true. We often rely on incomplete or ambiguous data, but I can't think of any examples where we form hypotheses in the absence of data.

But, that said, I don't believe that the origins of the universe lacks all data. We are missing direct data, but the nature of our world is potentially useful indirect data.

This is true. And we (as a species) are working on it. The problem is that most of the hypotheses are untestable, and therefore not really scientific. This includes the God hypotheses as well as some of the multiverse ones, although the multiverse ones may come to be testable.

Except, perhaps, when we are talking about the origins of _nature_ in the first place, hmm? I don't see how you can escape the 'supernatural.' Unless you are saying that science should not explore this question.

"Supernatural" is too slippery a word. Obviously, what "natural" means outside of or before our universe is up for grabs. "Supernatural" seems to describe a subset of all things that are outside of what we typically consider natural.

No, the point is that atheists claim that it is unreasonable to presume that God is involved in creation because there's no data. But, in actual fact, it's just as reasonable (I might posit more reasonable) as alternative hypotheses which they favor - for no apparent reason than philosophical bias.

First of all, I don't agree that so many atheists favor alternative hypotheses. Second, those that do typically have reasons other than bias -- whether they be mathematical models, attempts to explain various natural phenomena, or whatever. Brane theory, for example, came out of the mathematics of string theory -- it wasn't just some guy sitting around saying, hey this sounds cool.

Fundamentally the issue where God is relevant is whether (and how) the origins of existence relate to how we (ought to) live our lives.

If God is merely a prime mover, even an intelligent one, it doesn't necessarily follow that it has much to do with how we live our lives. If God is merely prime mover and fine tuner, we might have some idea of what it wants, but no particular reason we have to obey or anything. I think your use of the word God causes more ambiguity than it resolves. If you mean prime mover, say prime mover. If you mean intelligent creator or watchmaker or personal God, say it. Why use a word that's so slippery? Without precision, we can get nowhere.

XGH said...

> One can fully admit ignorance while still accepting some scenario as a working theory. In this respect religion plays its role.

Sure, but there are 'working theories' and then there are 'working theories'. FSM is also a 'working theory'. Point is you go with the simplest working theory, which doesn't include God.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"I don't think that's true. We often rely on incomplete or ambiguous data, but I can't think of any examples where we form hypotheses in the absence of data."

Obviously I'm not talking about zero data, but a minimum of data. There is data that we use to discuss the origins of the universe. It's just not direct data.

"First of all, I don't agree that so many atheists favor alternative hypotheses."

Seriously? Do a google search. Or just ask people on your blog. Ask them what kind of hypothesis they favor and why.

"Second, those that do typically have reasons other than bias -- whether they be mathematical models, attempts to explain various natural phenomena, or whatever."

No, for the most part, they're not well schooled enough in any of those disciplines and it just bias.

"Brane theory, for example, came out of the mathematics of string theory -- it wasn't just some guy sitting around saying, hey this sounds cool."

So, which part of string theory is testable again?

"If God is merely a prime mover, even an intelligent one, it doesn't necessarily follow that it has much to do with how we live our lives. If God is merely prime mover and fine tuner, we might have some idea of what it wants, but no particular reason we have to obey or anything."

As I see it, I don't know how to describe the characteristics of God or how precisely God brought our world into being, but what is important is the perspective that God brings to life. You're confusing a command-authority worldview with one that's purpose driven and appreciative of existence. It's not that God tells us what to do, it is that God inspires us to improve ourselves and reach for the transcendent.

"I think your use of the word God causes more ambiguity than it resolves. If you mean prime mover, say prime mover. If you mean intelligent creator or watchmaker or personal God, say it. Why use a word that's so slippery? Without precision, we can get nowhere."

Since it is the attitude toward existence that is important and not the precise metaphysics, why should I be?



GH,

"Sure, but there are 'working theories' and then there are 'working theories'. FSM is also a 'working theory'. Point is you go with the simplest working theory, which doesn't include God."

Ok, what would that simpler theory be? I'm curious to hear.

The Multiverse theory isn't any more simple than the idea of a unique creation. In fact, it's more complicated since you're literally creating indefinite numbers of whole universes just to explain the one we know about.

Jewish Atheist said...

Seriously? Do a google search. Or just ask people on your blog. Ask them what kind of hypothesis they favor and why.

I was imprecise. They may "favor" a hypothesis, but not the way religious people "favor" religious hypotheses. Atheists, as far as I know, hold them much less tightly.

No, for the most part, they're not well schooled enough in any of those disciplines and it just bias.

But they are disciplines at least, and people who are schooled in them also believe in them. I don't need to be a microbiologist to think germ theory is more likely than demons or sins causing sickness.

So, which part of string theory is testable again?

Oh, I'm not saying it is. But at least something that comes out of the mathematics in string theory has something behind it. It's rigorous and well-grounded in something... even though the something is tenuous. It's also possible that it will become testable. It's not like gravity, but it's a lot better than Mormonism.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"I was imprecise. They may "favor" a hypothesis, but not the way religious people "favor" religious hypotheses. Atheists, as far as I know, hold them much less tightly."

They may hold less tightly to any specific hypothesis, but the idea that the explanation does not involve God is basically a fundamental of their disbelief. De facto they are then lead to some variant of the Superuniverse idea because there isn't much else on the plate.

"But they are disciplines at least, and people who are schooled in them also believe in them."

Eh, not even so much. It's a philosophical issue more than a scientific one. There may be a few who genuinely find it a more convincing concept based on other reasons, but it's really just a placeholder. There's nothing inherently strong about the notion.

It solves the issue of the universe's conveniently ordered and life-sustaining existence by invoking sometimes an infinite number of other universes. What would Lord Occam have to say about that?

"Oh, I'm not saying it is. But at least something that comes out of the mathematics in string theory has something behind it. It's rigorous and well-grounded in something... even though the something is tenuous."

Have you ever seen the medieval mathematics describing the heliocentric movement of the planets? It's quite impressive. Terribly complicated though.

"It's not like gravity, but it's a lot better than Mormonism."

Now who's using a straw man? ;-)

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Excellent, excellent post. I remember reading the "Atheist Debater's Guide", written for atheists who wish to debate theists, and encountering the "null hypothesis" argument. My reaction was the same as yours in essence, although I framed it differently back then:

The atheist maintains that, while everything in the universe has a definite predetermining cause, existence itself has none. This is a very specific assertion, not a null hypothesis.

The deist/theist is actually the one operating with a "null" hypothesis, because he assumes that the Big Bang or whatever would be governed by the same rule as everything else - it would have a discrete cause and be no different than anything else we observe.

Do you officially consider yourself a deist, agnostic or what?

XGH said...

> Ok, what would that simpler theory be? I'm curious to hear.

A physical process we don't understand. Rather than a supernatural one that we dont understand. Why is the former simpler? Because everything else we know about is physical, so it's simpler in the sense that you don't need to invent an entirely new category of things.

Orthoprax said...

RJM,

Thanks, but I do believe that the correct understanding - as is used in statistical analysis - for the null hypothesis is not one favored theory over another or simply just a 'default' theory, but that there isn't anything significant going on in the first place. That it's just by chance that we have the results we do.

The point is that both theists and atheists are removed from the null hypothesis and neither can claim it (though theists rarely do) as default justification for their beliefs or non-beliefs unless they really do believe that chance alone is sufficient to explain reality.

"Do you officially consider yourself a deist, agnostic or what?"

I think we're all agnostics since it's foolish to claim knowledge of that which we really do not know, but I don't have a specific conception of God. Globally I tend to think of God in a panentheistic sense and that God 'interacts' with reality implicitly through the natural order.

The key is understanding that God is _not_ a person. Terms like where God 'thinks' or 'wants' are anthropomorphisms.


GH,

"A physical process we don't understand. Rather than a supernatural one that we dont understand. Why is the former simpler? Because everything else we know about is physical, so it's simpler in the sense that you don't need to invent an entirely new category of things."

How is physical different from supernatural? As I said earlier, the term 'supernatural' is usually not useful and is an abused term.

Though, as I also noted to JA above, how can any explanation for the origins of nature escape from being deemed supernatural?

e-kvetcher said...

XGH,

You are repeating a statement you often make, which is that the process that created the Universe is incomprehensible. I understand your statement to mean that we can NEVER understand it, as opposed to 'we don't understand it as of today'. Assuming I understand you correctly, where do you get this idea that it is incomprehensible?

I am sure that half the things we understand today were deemed incomprehensible 200 years ago. Multiverse may go the way of luminiferous ether, but it doesn't mean that we are not advancing forward in our understanding.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

OP,

IIRC, the null hypothesis in statistics is the hypothesis that predicts no significant difference between the two groups/treatments being studied. Similarly, I am suggesting that the null hypothesis would be that the creation of the universe had a cause external to itself, rather than it being a singularity that stands outside the framework of causality altogether.

Orthoprax said...

RJM,

"IIRC, the null hypothesis in statistics is the hypothesis that predicts no significant difference between the two groups/treatments being studied."

Yes, that's true - but importantly it is also that if a difference is found that difference is due to chance.

"Similarly, I am suggesting that the null hypothesis would be that the creation of the universe had a cause external to itself, rather than it being a singularity that stands outside the framework of causality altogether."

But that's not really a hypothesis that tries to explain the universe. It's just an assumption within a given hypothesis.

It may be more parsimonious, but it's not the null hypothesis.

There is a difference between existence and non-existence and the null hypothesis would say that the difference is only due to chance.

Anonymous said...

Two points

1) If we allow for infinite chances, then no matter how perfect the universe may seem, it is completely within the realm of possibility


2) Energy cannot be created or destroyed but rather its form changes - so perhaps there is a kind of infinity to the universe we are living in now

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

"1) If we allow for infinite chances, then no matter how perfect the universe may seem, it is completely within the realm of possibility"

Of course, but that's hardly a good answer. Through what means do these iterations happen? Hence you get to some variation of the Multiverse Hypothesis.

"2) Energy cannot be created or destroyed but rather its form changes - so perhaps there is a kind of infinity to the universe we are living in now"

But entropy always increases in a closed system. And energy can lose its power to do work. Current popular theory has it that the universe's fate at the end of time is the endless uniformity of heat death.

alex said...

Binyamin wrote, earlier on:
The first glaring mistake is the use of chance. Take evolution for example. Many theists who posit intelligent design claim that evolution is simply chance. However, it is quite the opposite. It is a set of forces which drive change. This is as far from chance as possible."

Ummmm, how would you explain how this "set of forces" came about? If you say, "by chance" -- which is really the only sensible answer an atheist can give -- then evolution is NOT as far from chance as possible.

alex said...

Jewish Atheist said earlier:
"Whatever happened/happens outside (or before) the universe is not relevant, so long as it is not God."

That sounds an awful lot like the words of another intelligent atheist, Richard Lewontin:
"We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.