Null Hypothesis ≠ Presuppositionalism
It was just over a year ago that I seriously considered a range of theological, philosophical and empirical data regarding the existence of God and the likelihood that any theistic religion, particularly Christianity, was true. As I read books, blogs and web sites, I occasionally stumbled across the term, presuppositionalism. I quickly gathered that this is a branch of Christian apologetics that starts with the premises that God is real and that Christianity is true, and then seeks to find rational support for those premises. I probably don’t need to point out to you that this method of reasoning is circular. Presuppositionalists try to weasel out of that charge by claiming that there are different types of circularity, that their method does not rely on mere vicious circularity (which they agree is a logical fallacy) and that all methods of inquiry rely, to some degree, on presuppositionalism. Therefore, even if they are guilty, so is everyone else.
Presuppositionalists claim that their presuppositions – 1. that God exists and 2. that the Christian version of God is the correct one – are not unreasonable and are, in fact, the only ones by which humans can make any sense of the world. Naturalists, on the other hand, claim that humans are capable of observing and testing data in the world and drawing sound conclusions about the nature of the universe on the bases of their tests and observations. This claim, which does not necessarily require or rule out a supernatural cause, may be regarded as the naturalist’s presupposition. Naturalists take humankind’s capacity to learn as a self-evident fact, an axiom, if you will, just as presuppositionalists take God’s existence as an axiom. If it is indeed the case that we are all starting with presuppositions of some sort, why is it that the theist’s presupposition is circular and the naturalist’s is not? Simply this: naturalists are not setting out to prove their presuppositions; they are using those presuppositions as means for moving forward into inquiries about all sorts of matters. Theists, on the other hand, are using their presuppositions specifically and solely to argue back toward what they’ve presupposed. Notwithstanding the clever claims of Van Til, Bahnsen and others, this is simply circular reasoning.
Some Christian apologists try to get around this distinction by restating (read: misrepresenting) the naturalist position. Such apologists assert that naturalists start with the presupposition that God does not exist. By doing this, they recast the naturalist position as a mirror image of the theistic position, an argument that corresponds precisely with theirs. Thus, we’re just as guilty as they are. In reality, as I’ve already noted, the naturalist presupposition is neutral regarding a creative entity; it requires neither acceptance nor rejection of that entity. It simply applies Occam’s Razor and ignores the supernatural altogether.
A related presuppositionalist error (or tactic) is to mistake (or misrepresent) the null hypothesis as a presupposition. Good research is built on stating a null hypothesis (if phenomenon A is the result of random agents, then agent B will have no observable or measurable effect on A), and an alternative hypothesis (if agent B has an actual effect on phenomenon A, we will be able to observe and/or measure it). When it comes to questions about God’s existence, naturalists begin with something akin to a null hypothesis: if natural phenomena can be explained via natural agents, then supernatural agency has no observable or measurable effects on nature. It is important to note that this is not a positive statement of God’s non-existence; it is simply a statement about whether God’s agency has been observed or measured. The alternative hypothesis is this: if God has actual effects on nature, then we will be able to observe and/or measure them. Naturalists start from a neutral position and do not posit God Did It until all other explanations have been discredited. God is simply one of many possible hypotheses. If the null hypotheses fail, then the alternative hypothesis, that God did, indeed, do it, must be accepted. The naturalist’s method of inquiry allows for two possible outcomes; the presuppositionalist’s method begins and ends by precluding the outcome it does not desire. It’s clear to me which of the two methods is more honest than the other.
To summarize, what I’ve explained here is:
- Presuppositionalists and naturalists both begin with axiomatic premises.
- These premises are not mirror images of each other, because
- The presuppositionalist uses his/her premises to argue back toward themselves and thereby “prove” them; investigating God’s existence begins by assuming that existence. This is circular reasoning.
- The naturalist uses his/her premises to argue away from the premises themselves toward all sorts of other conclusions. This is not circular reasoning.
- The naturalist’s approach to investigating God’s existence does not begin with a presupposition either for or against such an entity. Instead,
- The naturalist’s method begins with both null and alternative hypotheses and is open to confirming or rejecting either one.
- The presuppositionalist’s method rejects the null hypothesis entirely and is only interested in reinforcing the alternative hypothesis.
- The naturalist’s approach toward investigating God’s existence is more methodologically and logically sound than the presuppositionalist’s approach and is, consequently, more reliable.
– the chaplain