The null hypothesis is used in science, and we atheists tend to have a lot of respect for science, the scientific method, scientific and empirical evidence. We think of ourselves as logical and rational people. We feel we know a lot about the topics we discuss, especially when it comes to science.
In conversations with religious folks, especially many young-earth creationists, we will correct their misrepresentation and misuse of terms like evolution and scientific theory and demand they “learn the science.”
It might come as a surprise to you, then, that there are many of us atheists that also misuse scientific terminology and when explained to them how these terms are used in science can often act no differently than the creationist.
If we atheists are going to hold others to a standard where scientific language should be used correctly then we ought to hold ourselves to that same standard and instead of using the scientific language in a colloquial way, find a different way to describe our thoughts.
So what are these mistakes we make? Well, whether theist, atheist or other non-theist we all have blind spots, biases and things we misunderstand and I try to help with those that I’m aware of.
This article hopes to address some of the errors made using scientific terminology.
- The Null Hypothesis.
- What is a Hypothesis?
- Is Lacking Belief in Gods the Null Hypothesis?
- What is a Null Hypothesis?
- Hypothesis Example: Null and Alternative(s).
- Is No Gods Exist the Null Hypothesis?
- H0 Has to Be No God Exists!
- The Null is No Connection between God and Reality?
- Matt’s Confused Definition of Atheism.
- Summary on Atheism is the Null Hypothesis.
- Only Atheism and Theism?
- Is Agnostic Only About Knowledge?
- Epistemology and Gnosis.
- Type of Knowledge
- Science Knowledge and Fallibilism.
- What type of Knowledge is Agnostic?
- Living Language Issues.
The Null Hypothesis
The ‘Null Hypothesis’ is something frequently misunderstood by us atheists. We make statements that don’t really follow. Some atheists who use atheism as a lack of belief in gods say atheism is the null hypothesis whilst others will say the null hypothesis is that gods do not exist.
So let’s actually consider what a hypothesis is.
What is a hypothesis?
In short, a scientific hypothesis is a falsifiable tentative explanation of a phenomenon or a narrow set of phenomena observed in the natural world. For more detail check: ‘Forming a Hypothesis‘.
Hypothesis is an assumption or an idea proposed for the sake of argument so that it can be tested. It is a precise, testable statement of what the researchers predict will be outcome of the study.https://www.enago.com/academy/how-to-develop-a-good-research-hypothesis
Is Lacking Belief in Gods the Null Hypothesis?
Is lacking belief in something a falsifiable explanation? No, no it’s not. You might lack belief in a hypothesis or all hypotheses in a set but that’s still not the same thing as the null.
Lacking belief is simply describing a mental state that is missing. It is not a hypothesis or the null.
So what is a Null Hypothesis?
A null hypothesis is when there isn’t any significant statistical difference between variables. It gets falsified (or at least rejected) by another hypothesis being accepted if there is a significant statistical difference. In fact, depending on the field, the null can be when there is no difference or relationship between variables.
Null hypothesis states a negative statement to support the researcher’s findings that there is no relationship between two variables. There will be no changes in the dependent variable due the manipulation of the independent variable. Furthermore, it states results are due to chance and are not significant in terms of supporting the idea being investigated.https://www.enago.com/academy/how-to-develop-a-good-research-hypothesis/
H0 does not stand alone and belongs to H1-n. Without H1-n there is no H0 and it only belongs to the variables set out as measurable. Making a jump from H0 being the base or default state of an untestable H1 requires quite a bit of something that just isn’t there.
The null is never accepted, it sits in the realm of not rejected and rejected. When the null is not rejected, it is due to there not being enough evidence to reject it.
If our statistical analysis shows that the significance level is below the cut-off value we have set (e.g., either 0.05 or 0.01), we reject the null hypothesis and accept the alternative hypothesis. Alternatively, if the significance level is above the cut-off value, we fail to reject the null hypothesis and cannot accept the alternative hypothesis. You should note that you cannot accept the null hypothesis, but only find evidence against it.https://statistics.laerd.com/statistical-guides/hypothesis-testing-3.php
Hypothesis Example, Null and Alternative(s)
Let’s assume for a moment that someone had a hypothesis that not all calories were equal.
Hypothesis and null would be along the lines of:
H1: All else being equal, the type of calorie you eat can change the amount of weight you gain or lose.
H0: There is no difference between the type of calorie you eat and the weight gained or lost.
They proposed that in an otherwise perfectly balanced diet, people would gain more weight by eating 500 calories of sugar than they would by eating 500 calories of peanuts.
Now, assuming this is operationalised effectively, all variables controlled and the like we would be left with 3 possible outcomes.
In speaking with a few researchers and reading some articles these are sometimes regarded as outcomes to support the original hypothesis or can be considered hypotheses of their own.
Below I have formulated these as H1, H2 and H0, but if you would rather see these as possible outcomes 1-3 that do or do not support H1, it results in much the same for the purpose of the article.
H1. Eating 500 calories of sugar causes more weight gain than 500 calories of peanuts
H2. Eating 500 calories of peanuts causes more weight gain than 500 calories of sugar
And we are left with our null
H0. There is no significant difference between the weight gain caused by eating either sugar or peanuts.
Either H1 or H2 supports the original H1 of there being a difference based on the type of calories eaten. H0 supports the original null hypothesis that there is no difference.
Assuming there is no difference, the null isn’t actually accepted, it’s just not rejected for now. The null is never really considered accepted, though one could argue if you exhausted every type of food on the planet and there was no significant difference between any of it then all that remains is the null.
A good little blog on why we don’t ever accept the null: https://communitymedicine4all.com/2014/04/05/the-null-hypothesis-why-it-can-never-be-accepted/
The null hypothesis can sometimes be seen as the opposite or negation of a hypothesis. As long as there’s an H1 that is able to be operationalised then you can have an H0 that could be the opposite. However, the null is something that sits in the not rejected/rejected area, rather than being accepted if H1 is not proven true.
In this case, it’s “we haven’t falsified/rejected H0 yet” rather than “we haven’t proven H1 therefore we accept H0”.
Because there was no significant difference between the consumption of each 500 calories and the amount of weight gain, we have not falsified the null.
So, I think it is pretty clear that lacking belief in gods is not the null hypothesis. Not without changing what both a hypothesis and null hypothesis mean.
It can be quite ironic to see comments like this:
When they follow it up with statements like this:
So What About The Null Hypothesis Being “No God Exists”?
Matt Dillahunty recently made a very confusing statement about the null hypothesis, theism, atheism, agnosticism, and the law of excluded middle.
I’m going to do my best to be as charitable with his words here and describe a few ways to look at what he’s saying.
Matt is one of the proponents of “only one definition of atheism” – he views theism and atheism purely in the terms of the psychological state of believing and not believing in gods respectively. He then might use the terms implicit and explicit atheism or weak and strong atheism or any other modifier to separate different positions.
So, what he’s saying here is “you either do or don’t believe in gods” which isn’t exactly wrong. You believe something or you don’t but that doesn’t describe your whole position. An -ism also isn’t usually a psychological state, it’s the -ist that holds a psychological state in regard to or follows an -ism.
I cover off this relationship between -ism and ist in more detail in: Why Agnostic and not Agnostist?
We’ve also discussed how psychological systems or beliefs are not hypotheses. So using this definition, neither atheism nor theism are hypotheses and therefore cannot be the null hypothesis.
He does mention, “The null hypothesis is that no god exists.”
Another definition of atheism is the proposition gods do not exist with the atheist accepting (aka believing) this proposition is true. Here we see a more typical relationship between an -ist and -ism.
In fact, using the propositional definition of theism (at least one god exists) and atheism (no god do not exists) you also have a dichotomy of theism and atheism in the sense that only one or the other can be true.
If p = theism = at least one god exists is false then ¬p = atheism = gods do not exist is true and vice versa.
However, our belief positions in relation to these propositions are not quite as binary. There are a few different types of not believing but the one I will focus on is the suspense of judgement. Essentially, if you cannot decide if you think a proposition is true or false then the appropriate response is to suspend judgement, this could be described as uncertainty or by someone saying “I don’t know” and is also known as the psychological state of being agnostic or weak agnosticism.
So, where Matt speaks off agnostic not being some middle ground, he’s sort of missing the point around how agnostic is usually applied in regard to propositions.
It’s not a middle ground in a straight line format, though it can be described that way for ease, but theism and atheism are regarded as ontological positions because they speak directly to the nature of God’s being, whereas agnosticism is an epistemic position about an ontological position.
So, you can see by this use it doesn’t violate the law of excluded middle as Matt asserts, and seeing as LEM is used for propositions rather than beliefs (though you can phrase a belief propositionally) it makes more sense than the way Matt is using it too.
So, if we are using propositional theism and atheism, does this change if atheism (gods do not exist) is the null hypothesis?
Well, let’s pretend for the moment that theism (not just a specific claim but theism in general) is both falsifiable and can be operationalised. This means we’d be able to fully describe all the qualities of God(s), and how we would test and measure the results that would demonstrate existence. The design ought to be as such that we are looking for a significant difference between existence and nonexistence.
Using his example though, and pretending for a moment that these propositions can be operationalised into hypotheses:
H1: at least one god exists
H0: no gods exist
There might be some who think that H0 would have to be no gods exist because “you can’t prove a negative” – except you can.
H0 would be a position that was never accepted it just meant that we’d failed to falsify it.
What if we turn it on its head though?
H1: no gods exist
H0: at least one god exists
H0 would be a position that was never accepted, it just meant that we’d failed to falsify it.
Now, these propositions are not falsifiable, there are no variables to measure, we cannot operationalise these propositions, so they are not valid hypotheses and there is no null. Even if they were it could be hard to justify why one is “THE null” over the other. Not to mention there are definitions of gods that are more naturalistic in their formation and there could genuinely be no observable difference between them existing and not.
With this in mind, if these propositions were to be operationalised, the null hypothesis is not necessarily that God does not exist. As this could be approached from either end, it might be best stated simply that there is no significant difference between God existing and God not existing. You might then conclude that God does not exist, but that is not the null hypothesis. You might also conclude there isn’t enough evidence to make a decision either way and suspend judgement, aka be agnostic and again, this is not the null hypothesis.
H0 Has to Be No Gods Exist!
Now, there may be some that insist that H0 would have to be that no gods exist because “you can’t prove a negative!” – except you can. This is especially clear when it comes down to logical contradictions, but not the only way to prove negatives.
But again, God isn’t a measurable variable and existence is a binary item. We can’t operationalise the proposition God exists so there isn’t a null hypothesis. There is a negated proposition, as that is how propositions work, but that is not the same thing. The best you could do is define a deity and say if it existed we would expect to see X affect Y, but that isn’t the same thing.
There is No Relationship between God and Reality
Sometimes when pushed, Matt changes the wording of his what atheism as the null hypothesis means.
And of course you can find folks who parrot what he says without thinking about it too much:
So his H1 is: God(x) exists in reality.
What are the measurable variables there then?
- These are not measurable variables so it is not a valid hypothesis.
- No hypothesis means no null hypothesis
- Even if it was, it’s not really stating what they think it does.
For god to be a variable, it presupposes god exists but just has no relationship or connection to reality (or at least the reality we experience and can test).
Therefore he has hit another problem!
Matt’s Confused Definitions of Atheism
Matt states: Atheism = the null hypothesis
He’s provided 2 different null hypotheses:
- Atheism = god exists but has no relationship with reality.
- Atheism = no gods exist.
If these were valid hypotheses they would be somewhat contradictory.
And he also says: Atheism = a lack of belief in gods.
Lacking belief in gods is a mental state that is absent which is in no way a hypothesis.
Perhaps he should take his own advice and look into the null hypothesis a little more before stating others do not understand it.
A Quick Summary on Atheism Being the Null Hypothesis
Ultimately, the more you dig into what a hypothesis and the null are, the more you’ll find that it just doesn’t work for the god propositions.
If atheism is:
- A lack of belief in gods – it is describing a mental state that is not present, therefore is neither a hypothesis nor the null.
- No gods exist – then it is a proposition, and as it cannot be falsified or operationalised it doesn’t count as a valid hypothesis, null or alternative.
- There is no connection between God and reality – which is in turn a null hypothesis; for it to be a valid hypothesis with variables that can be operationalised, God would have to exist.
Only Atheism and Theism?
Whilst Matt is right that there is only theism or atheism if used as the propositions: P = at least one god exists and ¬P = no gods exist, that would mean one was only a theist or atheist if they accepted one of those propositions, and one that accepted neither of them and “only lacks belief” was neither theist not atheist. Whilst there are a variety of other non-theist positions, one of those is known as agnostic which can be simplified to being on the fence between Atheism and theism. It’s not a 3rd option in the sense neither Atheism or theism is true, but it is the third epistemic answer an agent could give in regard to the proposition of theism.
Is Agnostic ‘only’ About Knowledge?
Lastly is Matt’s claim that “agnostic is about knowledge”, and he’s only partially right here, he’s missing the bigger picture.
Firstly, agnosticism was an epistemic principle coined by the late TH Huxley as a response to both the theist and atheist folks of his time and their arrogance towards metaphysical claims.
He has said it a few different ways but essentially it boils down to: “We shall not say we know or believe that which we have no scientific evidence for”.
Basically, even if you lean one way, you should externally suspend judgement until there is scientific evidence for your position. (This is essentially represented by evidentialism today.)
I’m sure you also noticed the “or believe” too. So, in its coining, it wasn’t only about knowledge, and in epistemology, knowledge is usually considered a subset of belief. Even matt agrees that knowledge is a subset of belief, so saying, “it’s about knowledge not belief” is kind of erroneous phrasing. “it’s about a specific kind of belief not all belief” would be better.
Epistemology and Gnosis
Speaking of epistemology, it comes from the Greek episteme meaning knowledge. Whereas the root of agnostic is Gno which means to know. What you have to understand though, is the use of know here wasn’t necessarily speaking of knowledge in a propositional sense but could be speaking of; certainty (I know it will rain tomorrow), to perceive (I know I am being watched), awareness (I am aware the Qur’an is believed to be perfect), understanding (yeah, I know what you mean mate) and so on.
Type of Knowledge
Now, we could refer to at least some of these examples as knowledge-of, but not knowledge-how or knowledge-that. Knowledge-of isn’t propositional, at least in any meaningful external way. It’s basically just an acknowledgement of holding information. Knowledge-how isn’t propositional either, it is ability based. Knowledge-how can, at times, lead to propositional knowledge (knowledge-that), but not always.
Let’s give you an example.
A friend tells you about something you’ve not heard of before, and that it’s widely accepted in the scientific community… Perhaps he even shows you a few papers and peer reviews where they conclude this is the case, but not the whole papers themselves.
You have knowledge-of this conclusion, you might believe it is generally accepted but you don’t believe it yourself.
Next, let’s say you learn how they came to this conclusion by reading the papers in more detail. If you still don’t believe this conclusion it is likely because you have “knowledge-of-how” than actually understand what they are saying. Perhaps it is something that you actively need to try yourself to gain that knowledge-how.
Let’s say you have access to a lab and can perform the experiment. You see how it all works and get the same results. You now have knowledge-how. Not only that but do you try a number of different experiments to try and prove this hypothesis false. After much experimentation and analysis, you realise that this hypothesis is true. You know have knowledge-that this hypothesis is true.
Science, Knowledge, and Fallibilism
Just one thing to clarify though, science tends to take a fallibilistic take on knowledge, that is to say, it never considers anything absolutely true, just that there’s enough evidence showing something works and, as yet, has not been proven false.
What type of Knowledge does Agnostic Speak of?
To bring things back around to the point about “agnostic dealing with knowledge” it is the knowledge-of kind. You are uncertain if you think god exists or god does not exist.
Living Language and Issues.
Now, I do agree we are in a living language and we could be using these scientific terms in non-scientific ways and these philosophical terms in non-philosophical ways, and everyone is within their right to do so. The only danger is when they start:
- Demanding other people get their terminology right (e.g. telling a creationist to learn about evolution and theory) whilst not holding themselves to the same standard. (Special Pleading)
- insist other people use these colloquialisms in a prescriptive manner, especially if they start arguing for these colloquialisms being the only one that is correct. (Prescriptivism)
- if people fail to do 2. or challenge the “only” definition, reasserting it in a dogmatic way instead of showing a degree of scepticism. (Dogmatism)
- Othering folks who don’t adhere to your dogma. (Poisoning the well, tribalism, no true Scotsman)
- Accusing those who suggest there is more than one definition of a word as being prescriptive when you’re actually being prescriptive yourself. (Projection, lack of self awareness)
It seems quite clear to me that folks use their language in a flexible way that they feel strengthens their position. That is why they will use a colloquial version of the null hypothesis when it suits them yet demand the scientific use of the evolution or theory at other times.
The irony, of course, is that other than the people that are already their undying fans, they are not strengthening their position at all. In fact, when big named atheists like Matt make these arguments, his reach has a negative impact on how all non-atheist folk see us. It also causes unnecessary infighting when folks try to correct them, but that can’t be avoided… especially when folks claim that when they are wrong, they want to know, or that they want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.
So how are we to act when the people that claim evidence will change their minds, and they want to believe as many true things as possible turn out to reject evidence and prefer to believe false things?
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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