Monday, January 23, 2012

Atheism: A Null Hypothesis on God

Here is an article from Huffington Post's Religious section that I can appreciate and relate to in my search for God. I don't necessarily agree with everything the author says but I think it's worth the read anyway. So feel free to either read the majority of it here or to go read it on HP's website. And if you have disagreements with the author take it up on his comment section, though feel free to leave comments here as well.

"...I have tried in vain over the years to understand atheism. I've written about it several times, and whenever I do, I get a bucket of responses from atheists. And of course if I'm ever feeling disconnected from my non-believing brothers and sisters, I really have to go no further than the comment board on The Huffington Post (it seems they have quite a fascination with my articles there).
Try as I may to get atheism, I still don't. I do, however, see where agnostics are coming from. In fact, I identify myself quite often as a Christian agnostic. This is from the website, on the origin of the word:
"Thomas Henry Huxley invented the word agnostic in the Spring of 1869... Huxley first used the word agnostic at a party at James Knowles's house on Clapham Common prior to the formation of the Metaphysical Society... He [Huxley] took it from St. Paul's mention of the altar to 'the Unknown God.'"

The actual Greek roots of the word, "a-gnosis" means, "without knowledge." Basically, Huxley asserted that he didn't feel he had sufficient understanding either way to say with certainty that God does or does not exist. And really, if we consider the centrality of faith in the context of the metaphysical, no one KNOWS that God exists, or else they would have no need for faith. I understand that some will say their faith is so strong that it feels to them like certitude, but that is different than truly knowing.
There's also the notion of "deep knowing," which some people claim supersedes the vagueness of agnosticism. But again, in considering the actual etymology of the word, the type of knowledge Huxley is talking about is a cerebral, intellectual knowledge, not a gut feeling, regardless of the strength of conviction.
So by this definition, we're all agnostic, really.
And that's why I struggle to understand atheism.
Etymologically, atheism has similar Greek roots to agnosticism, coming from the words "a-theos" which means "no God" or "without God." This implies the same kind of certitude that a religious fundamentalist might claim is arguing they "know without any doubt that God exists." Based on what? Either of you? There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of God. Especially when we can't even nail down what exactly it is we're talking about.
For some, God is an anthropomorphic "other." For others, as philosopher John D. Caputo suggests, it's not that God exists as some independent metaphysical entity, but rather God "insists, so that the rest of creation might exist."
Put another way, God is the impetus, the spark, the divine breath, the "inspiration," if you will from which all the rest of creation finds meaning. But God is not to be found "elsewhere." It's more like light in that way, conspiring with the physical world to create something that makes sense. Yet to borrow a scientific concept, when you're seeing an object, what you're actually seeing is the light, or more specifically, the result of the interaction between the light and the observed object.
But you don't see the thing itself; you see the light. But the light is the means by which we find meaning in all that we see.
Pretty amazing understanding of God if you ask me. But how do you measure it? How do you prove it? Or disprove it?
One of the cornerstones of science is the scientific method, which is the process by which phenomena are understood and measured based on observable data. And I can see why someone who leans heavily on the scientific method would say that, since the idea of God is not directly observable in the ways defined by the scientific method, it's a non-issue.
But here's the thing. At one time, atomic particles were not observable, given the instruments at our disposal. Neither was dark matter. Or gravity, for that matter, which still cannot be directly observed: only measured as it affects other objects. It's not a "thing" that can be pinned down.
Sound familiar?
I respect the process and constraints of the scientific method. It has been critical to so much of the advancement we've made as a species. but to say that even science is entirely constrained by the scientific method is to ignore the creative imagination required to stretch the boundaries, to imagine what might be, beyond what is now understood to be. It's this kind of imagination that pushes humanity to create new tools that have allowed us to observe things we never knew existed before.
But all of those things -- and I'd argue, much more we've yet to discover -- have been a part of creation, despite our inability to observe or even conceive of them. Making room for those possibilities, seem, to me, to be at the heart of science as much as the rigorous processes defined by the scientific method.
In my graduate studies, I learned that every time you formed a hypothesis (God is), you were also required to develop a null hypothesis that says the opposite of your hypothesis (God isn't). Keep in mind that there are no "facts" in science, but rather hypotheses (educated guesses) and theories (hypotheses that have been supported by science, but that may ultimately be disproved). Now, I'm not a scientist, but it makes perfect sense within this model to have the "null hypothesis" that God doesn't exist.
However, to leap from that to certitude of God's non-existence is to violate the principles of the scientific method, isn't it? Even Aristotle conceded that the boundaries of science prohibited it from testing certain metaphysical phenomena such as the existence of God.
It seems to me, to paraphrase Paul (like Huxley), that we risk becoming that which we hate in staking claims of certainty on either side of this issue. In pushing back primarily against religious fundamentalism, atheism risks embracing the very fundamentalism it resists. And in doing so, it abandons the very principles of science it claims as the basis for non-belief.
I can work with a null hypothesis on the existence of God. There's room for dialogue. It creates space for creative imagination on both sides, whereas fundamentalism of any stripe seeks to draw lines of distinction (ie, division) and to stem conversation for the purpose of "being right."
I don't know if God exists. You don't know if God doesn't exist. But if scientists can not only coexist on both sides of a hypothesis, but even use that difference to promote progress, it seems we can and should apply similar principles to the public forum."


  1. This goes back to one of the most common misunderstandings of atheism: that it claims the null hypothesis that "God isn't". This is not the case. Atheism is the lack of belief in any particular god. It doesn't claim "knowledge", which is why most atheists are technically agnostic-atheists... they don't claim to know that there is no god, they just don't believe in god.

    1. Here's one of the top quotes from HP which I think explains it better than I did:

      "Part of your problem is that you just don't actually understand what atheism is. It isn't a certainty that there are no deities -- that would be gnostic atheism, and there are some gnostic atheists, but it isn't itself atheism. All atheism is is the absence of theism. Theism is the positive believe in the existence of at least one deity. Atheism is the absence of that belief. That can range from the rare gnostic atheist who is certain no deities exist, to the much more common agnostic atheist, to the again rare individual who has never even heard of the concept of deities and thus has never considered the question.

      Remember, agnosticis­m is not a "middle position" between theism and atheism. Theism and atheism are binary. If you're not a theist, you are by definition an atheist. Gnosticism­/agnostici­sm aren't about what you do or don't believe, they are about what you believe it's possible to know. Agnosticis­m and gnosticism are perfectly compatible with theism and atheism.

      The simplest explanatio­n I've seen comes from John McCarthy, who said: "An atheist doesn't have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can't be a god. He only has to be someone who thinks that the evidence on the god question is at a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question.""

      The only addition I would make is that "deism" is another option - and one that uses a much different definition of "god" than theism.

  2. Well it just depends on which definition of atheism you use. I understand your atheism better and I think it's a better position than some of the other more hardcore atheist positions. Just from Webster:
    a : a disbelief in the existence of deity
    b : the doctrine that there is no deity

    But I know where you're coming from.

  3. "Agnosticis­m and gnosticism are perfectly compatible with theism and atheism." Great line, wish more people recognized this.

  4. No doubt... from my experience interacting with atheists, I have never come across one that claims "there is no deity". Maybe in the past? Maybe some people somewhere? I don't know... but it isn't the common definition for today.

    Even the hardcore atheists don't say "there is no deity" that I know of. On Dawkins 7 point scale of belief, where a "7" means "I know there is no God", even Dawkins says "no thinking atheist would consider themselves '7', as atheism arises from a lack of evidence and evidence can always change a thinking person's mind."

    1. And... I should add... if an atheist does claim "there is no god", this is not a reflection on atheism, but rather a reflection of his/her epistemological stance on agnosticism/gnosticism. I think all atheists would agree that Webster's is using an incorrect definition of atheism when it says "the doctrine that there is no deity".

    2. Well you could say the same about theism. People believe their is a God, but not all Christians (or believers like myself) claim to know there is a God. It depends upon the individual and the definition he or she uses. Because obviously there are people who claim that they just know, 100%, that God exists. So I think it can go both ways, from what I've seen anyway.

    3. Yep... it does apply both ways and it should. Atheism/Theism is different from Agnosticism/Gnosticism.

  5. Well Dawkins also said in one of the youtube videos that he is like a 6.5 I think he said something like "well we can be almost 100% sure" so even if he feels he's 95% sure...he might as well say he's sure. As a scientist he probably hesitates even more to say that though, but if he equates the belief in God to the belief in Santa or the Eater bunny then he might as well just say he's sure. So imo that's pretty close. Though I realize this is not your stance, and I posted this not aimed at your atheism but for atheists who feel they know for sure that there is no God. Because believe it or not they're out there.

    1. I think he's a 6.9 in his books. But that still doesn't claim to know there is no god. While I might not be a 6.9, I view the evidence for a personal god to be very similar to...

      -a child's belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny - something that has been taught to them, perhaps experienced in a way that they interpreted to be supporting their belief, and so forth.

      -an ancient-greek belief in Zeus, where believers had the same reasons for believing in him as they do today to believe in Yahweh or whichever god.

      -a modern belief in bigfoot, the ogopogo, or alien abductions - something that may have been experienced in a seemingly 'very real' way, but is much more of a guess in trying to explain a mysterious or surreal experience than actual evidence to support a definitive belief.

      So I wouldn't say that I'm sure there is no personal God. But I don't have any evidence for it and I have alternative, natural explanations for everybody's personal experiences of god that I've ever heard. Of course, it isn't to say that I'm right and they're wrong, only that I haven't been persuaded by any anecdotes or storytelling and have never come across any empirical evidence.

      (I'm trying my best to make it clear that I'm discussing theism, not deism... I totally understand deism and don't have a problem with it except to say that it's irrelevant in my mind and not very different from atheism.)

    2. Ah yeah I couldn't remember the exact number and I didn't want to say 6.9 if I wasn't sure. I think you made theism pretty clear when you said "I view the evidence for a personal god..." but thanks for clarifying anyway. Yeah I get your position, I think the evidence for theism is a little stronger than for Santa or Zeus, or the Ogopogo though but I understand what you mean when you say the evidence isn't persuasive or you have natural explanations so I understand how you can relate them.