Monday, 23 May 2011

Chris Port Blog #261. God’s Null Hypothesis: The Banana Skin on the Pavement…

© Chris Port, 23rd May 2011

I’m picking up a lot of philosophical chaff on Facebook which is cluttering up the atheism/theism debate with pseudo-logical tinfoil. The Null ‘Default’ Hypothesis that “there is no God” seems to be making some glaring ‘category errors’…

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As a gentle way in, let’s consider an easily refuted null hypothesis with some metaphysical implications…

Null/Alternative Hypothesis 1

Null Hypothesis: Nothing physically exists.

Alternative Hypothesis: Some things physically exist.

Definition of physical existence: Observable particles which have mass.

Data measurement: Mass.

Prediction: Any competent scientist should be able to devise a repeatable experiment that measures mass.

Conclusion: The null hypothesis is rejected. The alternative hypothesis is validated. Some things physically exist.

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Now that we’ve verified some things exist, let’s consider something a bit more tricky…

Null/Alternative Hypothesis 2

Null Hypothesis: There is no God.

Alternative Hypothesis: There is a God.

Scientific definition of God: Supernatural entity that has physical existence (or, at least, a physical effect), including observable particles which have mass.

Data measurement: Mass and/or physical effect.

Prediction: There is no conceivable experiment to measure the mass of a supernatural entity since something supernatural would ‘exist’ beyond nature and the observable universe. From a positivist perspective, it is unclear what (if anything) is actually meant by the term ‘exist’ here.

The lesser criterion of ‘physical effect’ is more measurable, but only if we know what particular effect to look for. In the case of black holes, astronomers look for Hawkings radiation and gravitational ‘invisible man’ wobbles in observable phenomena.

However, in the case of God, since the putative causal entity remains invisible, without scale or location, it is impossible to suggest any particular focus of study. What physical effect would we be looking for? In a very big universe, this practically scuppers any experiment before it leaves the mind’s dry dock.

Looking to future developments, a ‘Grand Unified Theory’ would (at first glance) appear to solve the problem of ontology. Such a Theory of Everything would remove the need to look for any effect by default (since all physical effects would be accounted for, there would be nothing for a ‘God of the gaps’ to do).

Conclusion 1: Since it is impossible to design an experiment to test the null hypothesis, the null hypothesis must always remain unvalidated. The same conclusion holds for the alternative hypothesis. However, this is not the same as saying that both hypotheses are equivalent.

Citing the principle of Ockham’s Razor, a competent scientist would allocate the balance of probability to the null hypothesis as this makes the fewest assumptions. In essence, God is just over-complicating things. The simplest explanation is not always the correct one or the best one, but making an explanation needlessly complicated is like using calculus to catch a ball (not particularly helpful).

The creation of the natural universe is capable of mostly consistent explanation within the limits set by the Big Bang and the Uncertainty Principle. Scientific explanations do not require the existence of a God, so the null hypothesis is more probable unless contradicted by new and observable phenomena (which, I would say, are unlikely).

A competent scientist should therefore conclude that there is no valid reason to believe in a God. Atheism is a sensible default position, and any further debate should put the alternative hypothesis (theism) to the test instead.

Conclusion 2: There is an underlying flaw in the methodology here. All the competent scientist has done is to propose a definition for God that meets their test criteria (physical existence, or effect, including mass). However, this definition immediately fails without being tested.

First, there is no experiment or measurable data. In essence, the scientist has no idea what to look for or how to look for it.

Second, some theists would reject the positivist definition of existence in God’s instance. They may reasonably claim that their definition of God is closer to metaphysics than physics and should therefore be tested by ontological criteria.

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For example, consider the following critique of another flawed null/alternative hypothesis that is demonstrably unfit for purpose:

Null/Alternative Hypothesis 3

Null Hypothesis: I do not exist.

Alternative Hypothesis: I exist.

Scientific definition of “I”: A conscious, self-aware, rational entity with a continuous identity that has physical existence, including observable particles which have mass.

Data measurement: Thought and mass

Prediction: Any competent scientist should be able to devise a repeatable experiment that measures mass. The problem lies in the ‘thinking’ bit…

At first glance, this part of the experiment would appear to be the most self-evident. Sceptical thinkers have long trusted Descartes’ rational “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”) as a bedrock of certainty in a universe which plays tricks on the senses. Science, however, has shown this certainty to be profoundly wrong.

Consciousness is an ‘emergent property’ of particles and processes which are, in themselves, insentient. Physically, there is no such thing as “I”. That is not to say that “I” do not have physical mass. It is just to say that "I think therefore I am" infers too much. While 'existence' is a prerequisite for thought, identity is not. Who, or what, is "I"? Do new thoughts create new identities? Are you the same person that you were? These are clearly metaphysical questions rather than scientific ones.

Scientifically, it would be more correct to say "A thought, therefore something having it". "I" is a gestalt here rather than a singular entity. In some ways, “I” is an illusion, a biochemical bundle of sensations which combine to produce an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. The atoms of a living man and the atoms of a dead man are exactly the same. The only difference between the living and the dead is in how the parts work together. There is no ‘ghost in the machine’. There is only the machine.  So, all that “I” actually refers to is the processes rather than the object.

“I” is just a label we give to bio-mechanistic processes to link roiling thoughts together in a useful (survivable) way. Otherwise, we'd just be incoherent neural connections babbling like madmen (as indeed I often am on a good night down the pub...)

The above example, while facetious, demonstrates the inappropriateness of using scientific methodology to debate existential propositions such as “I”.

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If a theist claimed that God had physical existence, then science would rightly require empirical evidence. In this event, I predict that the theist claim would fail.

If a theist claimed that ‘God’ is a label (a gestalt, analogous to the earlier “I”) encompassing various metaphysical phenomena such as ethics, aesthetics and meaning, science would quite rightly pass the buck to the philosophers as there is nothing to be physically tested. I’m not going to predict the conclusions of philosophers here (it would obviously depend on which types you asked) but any competent philosopher would quickly realize that the null/alternative hypothesis model is unfit for purpose when considering a metaphysical God. The overwhelming consideration is what is meant by God.

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Conclusion 3: A supernatural God who does not interfere in the natural world has no place in scientific debate. As far as science is concerned, anything without physical mass or effect in the natural world doesn’t exist. But does science have a place in metaphysical debates about God?

Scientists are as entitled to their beliefs and opinions as any other human being. But if they want to get involved in philosophical debate, they would do well to read up on Wittgenstein. It concerns me that there are so many pseudo-scientific public pronouncements on the subject of God that actually constrict the debate rather than clarifying the subject.

Reductionism makes for good science but lousy philosophy. Far too many logical errors are weakening atheistic arguments with glaring ‘category errors’ such as the misappropriated null/alternative hypothesis model. If philosophers decided to plan a manned mission to Mars, measuring the distance in bananas, scientists across the world would rightly think that the eggheads had gone… bananas… Similarly, when scientists decide to nullify a metaphysical concept by measuring its physical extension (none), philosophers see a banana skin on the pavement…


  1. In response to a Facebook comment thread:

    "Nope, you really have lost me this time..."

    In essence (philosophically, a VERY dodgy phrase!) human beings understand the world and themselves through stories (narratives). Some stories claim to give us an understanding of the 'big picture'. These stories are sometimes called 'metanarratives'. The tricky bit is when we start asking whether these stories are 'true', and what do we MEAN by 'truth'?

    Where all religions fail by modern philosophical standards is that they ultimately require their adherents to accept their doctrines on the basis of good faith rather than logical consistency. This is where it all gets TERRIBLY complicated. The usual cop-out is to claim that perhaps it is more logical to interpret religions as artistic and moral parables rather than literal ‘truths’. However, this does seem a bit hypocritical as religions don’t usually promote themselves as ‘art’!

    As a good scientist, Richard Dawkins is happy to allow artistic fiction to tell us meaningful truths about life (he is a cultured, aesthetic writer) but he is not happy to allow religion to do the same because (a) he believes it is a fiction posing as a truth, but more importantly (b) because he believes it is harmful. Art, if you like, is a ‘good’ lie and religion is a ‘bad’ lie.

    At this point it may be comforting to turn to science as dealing in 'facts' rather than fiction. However, this may not be as 'true' as we might like to think...

    According to the postmodernist (don't even ask) philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, science cannot legitimize its own activity. It must turn to narrative (political and philosophical). However, the general decline in metanarratives after the Second World War led science to try and legitimize itself through performativity. What kind of research will generate more research of the same kind? Moral claims on the objective search for truth are soon compromised in the political wheeler-dealing required to secure funding and careers. In The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next (2006), the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin is deeply critical of politics in science and the highly selective decision-processes created by ‘group think’. So, we're still moving through the land of stories...

    If you want it all in a friendly soundbite...

    “There is no such thing as a fact. There are only stories. Choose different facts, and you get a different story...”

  2. From the The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official) Facebook page. A classic example of how empiricists can get themselves into trouble without metaphysical perspective...

    [Original post]: "I have just had a thought that may bear some examination and may be a problem for theists, though they will have a facile way out. It has just occurred to me that Mathematics is something that exists in effect outside of the universe and simply is. Completely immutable, absolute, existent before time or the big bang, defining everything there after, and built upon rock solid axioms. Like “god” Mathematics is eternal and self existent though sadly has offered no opinion as to how Noah should have built the ark."

    [My reply]: The word ‘exist’ may be leading you astray here. Mathematics is the study of quantity, structure, space, and change. It is overwhelmingly probable that these phenomena exist independently of our minds. However, mathematics is the study of the phenomena, not the phenomena themselves. Mathematics is the attribution of consistency in the mind. The universe itself is as indifferent to mathematics as it is to beauty. Without consciousness, mathematics would not exist.

  3. [My response to a subsequent post that "the universe is mathematics made function"...]

    I think that you may be falling into a classic teleological trap (getting things back to front).

    Teleology is the supposition that there is purpose or direction in natural processes. To say that “the universe is mathematics made function” is to infer that mathematics preceded the universe, and that the ‘purpose’ of the universe is to give mathematics physical form.

    I would argue that in reality it is completely the other way around. The universe came first. Mathematics is our expression of patterns that we observe in it. These patterns are relationships attributed by our minds, not inherent properties. The only inherent properties of the universe are the four basic force charges and the ways in which they interact with each other. Everything else in the universe is an ‘emergent property’ rather than an expression of function.

  4. "... as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." ~ Albert Einstein.

  5. [Subsequent post: “… how do you solve the problem of unity out of the diversities when it comes to logic/math? If we are contriving these realities [individually] how do they work as a unity?”]

    [My response]: It’s a fascinating area of study. Does the recurrence of similar patterns in different systems suggest a metaphysical role for mathematics? The problem then would be an inference that physical forms are an expression of mathematical functions…

    My initial solution to this ‘problem’ is simply to suggest that there is no problem!

    Starting from the four fundamental forces, why shouldn’t localized systems arrive at similar ‘solutions’, even at different scales? The diversity of emergent properties is the result of slight inhomogeneities in the quantum state of the early universe. Time, expansion and chaotic (complex) interactions have provided a wide variety of phenomena for us to study. We use mathematics to model their forms and behaviour. Some physicists have even speculated that chaos theory may give rise to new ‘emergent’ laws of physics, but the gist of String/’M’ Theory seems to be that all matter and energy is just variations on a fundamental theme.

    Unity in diversity only seems to be a problem if you think that this is an underlying ‘design’ feature. I would cite the Weak Anthropic principle and say “That’s just the way it is, otherwise we wouldn’t be here to see it”.

    As a very simple example, many different types of forces tend to be transmitted equally in all spatial directions. One consequence of this ubiquitous behaviour is that the pattern of a circle or sphere is likely to recur throughout nature at different scales. If mathematics starts to develop self-consistent variations on the component relationships of circles and spheres, it shouldn’t really surprise us if we start to discover more and more apparent similarities in different phenomena. Basically, the more complex mathematics becomes, the more opportunities it creates to find patterns. That’s what maths is designed to do.

    Whether this recurrence of patterns suggests anything deeper actually leads us away from numbers towards language and metaphysical discussions (which I suspect you wish to avoid!). For example, if I was to claim that the ubiquitous recurrence of ‘God’ in different localized cultures inferred that there must be something like ‘God’ in nature, I suspect you would retort that all it actually reveals is people’s general urge to invent explanations. A diversity of religions does not make a unity in a deity.

    Once the concept of ‘God’ is invented, this can lead us into all sorts of teleological traps. I would say that ‘unity in diversity’ is actually just another variation on this theme. We invent a notation designed to find patterns. We then map that notation on to the physical universe. We are then surprised to find recurring patterns in the notation. I don’t think that’s a problem. I think that’s what we were looking for, so we found it.


    Mathematics - Unity in Diversity

    The Significance of Unity and Diversity for the Disciplines of Mathematics and Physics

    Functions and Mathematics

  6. [Subsequent post: “Nice Google. Now, please explain how, if we are [individually] [making] mathematical truths, subjectively, how they are united into a coherent [objective] system."]

    [My response]: Because that's what we've designed the system to do. If it's not consistent, its not maths. You're starting to slip into Wittgenstein's 'category errors'.

    Mathematics (unlike language) is specifically designed to be consistent and coherent. The universe, by existing, is coherent. The ‘laws’ of physics are consistent and (quantum theory of gravity aside) mostly coherent down to the Planck scale. To map a coherent system onto a coherent universe, then claim that the universe is somehow a manifestation of the system, is to confuse two different categories of coherence. They are physically unrelated. They just look similar. Fortunately, the consistency and coherence of our mathematical system enables us to make testable predictions about the consistency and coherence of physical systems. There is a ‘family resemblance’ concept at work here. But they are not the same thing at all.

  7. [Subsequent post: “You didn't answer the question, my friend;)"]

    [My response]: I have answered it. I've just not answered it on the terms you've suggested ;)

    Coherence gets more ‘fuzzy’ at the quantum scale. Quantum mechanics is the most consistently accurate scientific theory ever devised. Heisenberg was dismissive of attempts to understand what was ‘physically’ going on. As far as he was concerned, all that could be claimed about quantum mechanics was that the maths worked. The uncertainty principle, and the strange interference of measurement and even consciousness on quantum level 'events'/probability waveforms, are still profoundly incomprehensible to us. As a lyricist physicist, I derive a wry satisfaction from this. Maths is designed to be ‘perfect’, yet the universe (so far) eludes perfect notation. There is, of course, no such thing as an objective system.

  8. [Subsequent post: “Great! Can't answer, so you pull the old QM card....gotta love it!"]

    [My response]: All roads lead to foam...

    Although (strictly speaking) non-sequiturs, you may find the following 'family resemblance' posts amusing when pondering some of the discrepancies between numbers and 'reality'...

    Marty Gull - Targets

    Monkey Dust - Government School Targets

  9. Richard Dawkins permalink

  10. On the 'redefinition' of God...


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  12. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)