Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Part 3: The Null Hypothesis

So what does it mean to claim that a being like God does not exist?  Because when you listen to religious apologists, they'll often have you believe that the only way to justify such a proposition is by scouring every last nook and cranny of physical reality itself, only to turn up empty.  Of course, that's not what it means at all, and everyone knows it, because proving a negative in this sense is a philosophically impossible feat.  But if that's the truly case, then how do we claim that anything at all doesn't exist?  What is the epistemic basis by which we can reject the existence of things like Bigfoot, Unicorns, and Yahweh?

Imagine that you’re out shopping for a new car, and the dealer presents you with a next-generation performance vehicle [“The Parable of the Delorian”].  The car certainly looks snazzy enough, but the features are amazing.  Not only does this car actually fly, he says, but it powers itself on garbage and even travels through time.  It’s the coolest thing you’ve ever heard in your life, so naturally, you take the dealer completely at his word and write him a check, right?

No.  You’re skeptical.  Nothing like this exists in your experience, and as far as you know, nothing ever could.  So you demand some form of justification for why you should fork over perfectly good money for this product.  It’s certainly a reasonable request, but for some reason the dealer almost seems insulted by it.  After all, he just “knows in his heart” that this car can fly, and he even brings out the rest of his staff to personally testify on his behalf.  

Are you convinced now?

What if he tells you that the car only flies and travels through time as long as you believe it does.  And if it still doesn’t fly or run on garbage, then you just aren't believing hard enough and need to keep “building your faith” until it does.  

Are you convinced now?

What if he threatens you with legal action, criminal incarceration, and torture unless you buy this car?

Are you convinced now?

What if the dealer drags out a chalkboard and explains the fundamental principles of cold fusion, followed by a primer on temporal physics?  As far as you can follow, the logic appears to be completely sound and the mathematics is simple and elegant.

Are you convinced now?

Finally, what if he just sits you down in the damn thing and takes you for a test drive?  Then, fueled by nothing but trash from the nearest dumpster, you really do take off, fly over the city, and even stop for a detour in the late Jurassic to take pictures of dinosaurs.  

Are you convinced now?  I know I would be!

This simple story illustrates a scientific principle called the null hypothesis.  Because it's one thing to merely claim that a car can fly, yet another thing entirely to physically demonstrate it.  Remember that synthetic propositions follow a specific set of rules, chief among which is the ability to predict events with a measurable impact in our sensory experience.  So when some guy tries to tell you that his car can fly, then sooner or later you should be able to hop into his car and actually experience flight.  And if you can't, then his claim is justifiably false.

But notice how there's an intrinsic epistemic disparity between the positive claim and its null.  Because the claim that a car can fly carries with it a series of predictions about our actions and their ultimate consequences in our sense experiences.  But the claim that a car cannot fly carries no predictions at all, other than the continuing absence any particular manifestations.  The physical expectations of the null hypothesis are therefore immediately satisfied, by default, without even lifting a finger.  That's why the burden of proof always lies with the person making the positive claim, and never with the person who rejects it.  

It's important to realize that this is more than just some passing philosophical nuance, but a very real, practical principle that governs all of our daily lives.  It's the reason why suspects in a criminal court of law are always legally innocent until proven guilty.  It's the reason the United States has yet to invade Canada in a preemptive strike against their secret radioactive doomsday machine.  It's the reason why nobody has ever attempted to appease the Flying Space Monkeys from Planet Neptune.  Absence of evidence really is evidence of absence, and anything claimed without justification may be immediately rejected without argument.  So unless Christians learn to back up this God-thingy of theirs in the form of a predictable sensory manifestation, then any arguments they have to offer are already wrong before they even begin.

Bear in mind now that all this practically boils down to is the idea that pure, unfettered say-so is not necessarily sufficient justification for certain propositions.  Yet despite this universal simplicity, many Christians will still fight tooth and nail to shift the burden of proof over God's existence anyway.  They’ll say things like “there are no good arguments that atheism is true” [1], or maybe they’ll demand "proof and evidence that atheism is accurate and correct” [2].  Some Christians will even go so far as to redefine knowledge itself just so they can specifically rationalize their belief in God without any justification at all.  For example, reformed epistemology is a branch of apologetics that just assumes God’s existence outright before anything else and then interprets all human experience in that light.  Some forms of presuppositionalism will even go so far as to claim that all of us, everywhere, already know in our hearts that God exists, and that asking for proof is just redundant [3].  And not just any God, mind you, but specifically the Christian God as described in the Bible.  It’s a blatant admission that their belief has no demonstrable impact on reality, so they have to invent a whole new set of epistemic rules, just for themselves, just so they can keep on believing anyway.

So all things being equal, the mere lack of evidence alone is already perfect justification for the strong assertion that there is no such thing as God.  By definition, things which don't exist, don't manifest in our sense experience, while only things which do exist eventually might.  But religious apologists have a remarkable habit of failing on every conceivable epistemic level you can imagine.  Because it's one thing assert the existence of things that might be real, like a powerful, personal agent with a vested interest in human affairs, but another thing entirely to believe in things that absolutely cannot be real, like an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being, that necessarily exists outside of space and time.

For instance, let's consider the idea of omnipotence, which is usually defined by the infinite potential to do literally anything.  All right, so if God can do anything, then let’s see God create a rock so heavy that even God himself cannot move it.  I know that I can personally perform this task on myself just fine, so why is it so hard for a deity?  Or better yet, can God create a creature that God himself cannot control?  How about if God creates another omnipotent God, and then beats that God in an arm-wrestle?  No matter how one answers, there have to be things outside of the ability of an omnipotent being.

This illustrates another fundamental epistemic rule known as coherence: the idea that whatever properties you assign to something, those same properties cannot lead to any annoying contradictions.  A classic example of this is the idea of a “married bachelor.”  By definition, a bachelor is already unmarried, so anything that happens to be married is automatically no longer a bachelor.  Married bachelors therefore do not exist, simply because the very concept itself violates the axiom of noncontradiction.  That’s why, without even leaving my own chair, I can already assert, with absolute certainty, that a truly omnipotent God does not exist either, simply by the nonsensical meaning of the idea itself.

But let's take it one step further and consider omnibenevolence, as defined by the infinite capacity for perfect goodness, love, mercy, and justice - all properties that imply an entity who would do everything it can to minimize suffering in our world.  This sounds great in theory, except for the problem that our world is obviously overflowing with a massive amount of pointless, unnecessary suffering.  Genocide, starvation, AIDS, cancer, birth defects, mental retardation, and polio are just a tiny fraction of the horrible maladies that humans beings spend vast resources trying to eliminate.  So if God genuinely happens to be real and deeply powerful, then He is also sitting idly by while droves of us needlessly suffer miserably.  A truly omnibenevolent God therefore cannot exist simply by the mere virtue that the world is happier, safer, and more productive without smallpox in it.  

And so we see the principle of falsifiability: the idea that whenever you describe something with a predictable impact in our sense experience, then it sure is awful nice when those predictions actually come to pass.  

Remember that our only connection to the external world is through our senses, which are fundamentally detached from any true, underlying perception the universe.  That’s why we cannot “deduce” reality in the strictest sense, but only make inferences through logical induction.  It’s a basic limitation on knowledge that nature forces us live with, yet Christian philosophers will actually fight against even this.  They’ll claim that induction is unreliable, or that it assumes a uniformity in nature, or that it’s circular, or whatever.

But of course they've got it all wrong again.  By definition, induction is simply the process of forming generalizations about sets through a limited sampling of subsets.  Justification for this process is then found by examining the two epistemic possibilities:
  1. If incomplete samplings of a particular subset are indeed indicative of the behavior of the whole, then induction will lead to a correct belief in the form of predictable consequences.  However,
  2. If the subset is not indicative of the whole, then sooner or later any beliefs based on induction will lead to failed actualization of desired outcomes.
In other words, when it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it eventually lets you know.  Logical induction, by its very nature, is therefore self-correcting.  All it takes is the intellectual honesty to admit when our conclusions are wrong so that we can modify them in the face of new information.

This is exactly why fallibilism and falsification are such integral aspects of the scientific method.  In principle, both true and false beliefs can have the power to guide our actions toward desirable outcomes, but only false beliefs have the potential to ever periodically fail in that goal.  Honest people embrace this, which is why honest people can actually be swayed in their beliefs by the introduction of new facts and evidence.  But religious apologists are not “honest people” because they come from a position of absolute, unwavering certainty.  That's why so many Christians cannot help but constantly bash on science at every turn, because science itself carries so many epistemic rules that Christians are not allowed to exercise on their theology.

So let's be generous and assume that God is real and wants us to know about it.  What could He do to effectively demonstrate His existence?  In principle, this ought to be trivially easy.  Maybe God could appear to us in distinct physical manifestations and personally share his uniquely profound wisdom in our daily lives.  Maybe God could answer our prayers by performing distinct acts of healing with no natural counterpart.  Maybe God could sign his name in the moon or encode His one true scripture into our DNA - something that could only be explained if a powerful, personal agent were taking a vested interest in human affairs.

But instead, what do we really have?  We have a bunch of jumbled story books riddled with known corruptions and inconsistencies; we have the dogmatic assertions of hack philosophers and theologians who abjectly refuse to ever recognize or correct a single error from their beliefs; and we have a bunch of mutually incompatible denominations, all claiming to represent the one absolute truth, yet continually diverging further apart with every passing generation.  In short, we have exactly what one would expect from a purely cultural phenomenon of human making.

This is all it means to hold a strong atheist view.  Because even if some human concept of God actually turned out to be real, then it necessarily follows that all of the other thousands upon thousands of Gods from human history are unquestionably false.  So obviously, it's perfectly normal for human beings to invent entire religious traditions out of whole cloth, since any assertion of one is already an implied rejection of all others.  But it's a simple fact of logic that, while they cannot all be true, they certainly can all be false.  Consequently, the only meaningful distinction between an atheist and a Christian is that atheists simply go one step further by including Yahweh in that long list of Gods that certainly don’t exist. 

Any moron can claim that God is real, and any moron can rationalize that claim under a cloak of convoluted rhetorical arguments.  But only a true and living God can exclusively demonstrate Himself in the form of a predictable sensory manifestation.  And if apologists would just fulfill this one, simple criterion, then virtually everyone on Earth would be more than happy to believe in God and convert to Christianity.  But until this happens, we are all more than justified in cutting to the chase by declaring openly and proudly that GOD DOES NOT EXIST.

  1. William Lane Craig says this all the time.  See, for example, (here)
  2. Infamous quote from popular YouTube Christian ShockofGod (link)
  3. See here for Sye Ten Bruggencate's lecture

1 comment:

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Most famous demonstration of God's existence: day and night.

Universe turning around us.

A man could not turn the universe around us.

An angel could be turning each celestial body around us, but this requires either a common ether turning around with them all - which brings us back to God turning the universe around us - or all angels being coordinated by a very closely obeyed and extremely good choreographer - which brings us to God as ruler of angels.

Most famous denial of this proof : Heliocentrism.