Null Hypothesis ≠ Presuppositionalism

September 3, 2008 at 9:57 pm 13 comments

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:

  1. Presuppositionalists and naturalists both begin with axiomatic premises.
  2. These premises are not mirror images of each other, because
  3. 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.
  4. The naturalist uses his/her premises to argue away from the premises themselves toward all sorts of other conclusions. This is not circular reasoning.
  5. The naturalist’s approach to investigating God’s existence does not begin with a presupposition either for or against such an entity. Instead,
  6. The naturalist’s method begins with both null and alternative hypotheses and is open to confirming or rejecting either one.
  7. The presuppositionalist’s method rejects the null hypothesis entirely and is only interested in reinforcing the alternative hypothesis.
  8. 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

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Reasons why I de-converted and now consider myself an atheist Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard  |  September 3, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    TC- Thank you for a fascinating look at presuppositionalism (PS)! Ever since I stumbled upon it a few years ago I have been intrigued by it, as it is both the most difficult and the most screw-with-your-head-ish form of apologetics. One has an intuition that it is obviously wrong, but it is devilishly hard to say exactly why it is wrong.

    I appreciate your insight into the nature of the null hypothesis as relates to naturalism. Thats an angle I hadnt considered. I like how you argue, against their usual claims, that neutrality between two ideas can and indeed is achieved; in fact, its an everyday affair. Empirical methods do not intrinsically preclude supernaturalistic explanations!

    I wonder, though, whether PS’ers would agree that you have represented their position correctly with #3.

    From what I understand of it, they would say they are not assuming God and then trying to prove God. They would say they assume God because God can “account” for (explain, provide a basis for) things like morality and logic itself. The naturalist, they claim, cannot “account” for logic (“why do believe logic leads to the truth?”) and any natualistic attempt to do so results in contradiction, and therefore is to be rejected. Thus, “God” is the only theory left standing.

    For example, they note that the empiricist’s “verification priciple”, which says that only statements that are emprically verifiable are meaningful, is itself unverifiable, and therefore self-contradictory.

    I agree with you, though, that naturalism is more honest, and I would add, more simple, practical, and less contorted, because we do not have to jam-fit the world to the Bible (which they begin by assuming is true). My main answer to them is that one does not have to produce a flawless epistemology or else accept Christian theology as the only viable alternative; thats just silly and obviously fallacious.

    My conclusion is like yours: PS is a lot like intelligent design in that it demands perfect answers to difficult questions or else accept the deux ex machina of 20th century American Protestant Christian theology. No, no, no, no, no.

    Thanks again!

  • 2. forknowledge  |  September 4, 2008 at 2:27 am

    From what I understand of it, they would say they are not assuming God and then trying to prove God. They would say they assume God because God can “account” for (explain, provide a basis for) things like morality and logic itself. The naturalist, they claim, cannot “account” for logic (”why do believe logic leads to the truth?”) and any natualistic attempt to do so results in contradiction, and therefore is to be rejected. Thus, “God” is the only theory left standing.

    I’ve come across both this and the explicit ‘proving God’ form of PS. The above scenario is interesting, in that the PSer moves automatically from a conceptual necessity to assuming that what they’re conceiving must therefore exist. They also assume the Christian God specifically, and on very dubious grounds (note the many unintentionally hilarious attempts at ‘proving’ that Islam is internally contradictory or otherwise ‘doesn’t make sense’, often using identical criticisms as those levelled against the Bible.) I’ve also seen PSers who will admit that their presupposition is actually that ‘the Bible is the word of God’, which is very obviously not a single presupposition.

  • 3. Mike  |  September 4, 2008 at 12:17 pm


    I appreciate this article in that while I personally dont tend to use this apologetic approach, it is still good for me to think about and contemplate the merits/drawbacks from such a line of thinking.

    If there was one place where I might offer a critical eye, it is at your point here:

    “Naturalists start from a neutral position and do not posit God Did It until all other explanations have been discredited.”

    I think it is a bit of a leap to claim that Naturalists start from a neutral position. Everyone has a bias. Everyone. And in this case I would say that the bias (as you have described it) is the opinion that God’s action is mutually exclusive with any other potential cause, and that all other potential causes must be ruled out before God can be considered. Those are two extremely biased assumptions that cannot be substantiated by any empirical data, they are opinions based on the observers’ biases.

    I am not claiming that the Christian comes away from this line of thought any better off. Remember, I do believe that everyone has a bias, and that certainly includes Christians. I just think that if we are gonna engage in this line of thought, we need to take into account bias, rather than claim one position is without it and therefore truly objective.

  • 4. LeoPardus  |  September 4, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    There actually is a method in formal, symbolic logic for assuming the conclusion and using it as a premise. If you thereafter run into a contradiction in your proof, you have proved the conclusion false. If you don’t hit a contradiction, you’ve demonstrated the conclusion to be valid.

    Of course it’s pretty much impossible to use this method in theology because it’s part of formal, symbolic logic, and theology doesn’t use that. Theology uses propositional logic for the most part.

    So, in short, you’re completely correct in saying that Presuppositionalism is circular logic. Or, as I prefer to say, circular illogic.

  • 5. The Nerd  |  September 4, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    This is exactly what I found so irritating in my apologetics studies: the blatent awareness of logical fallacies, and the finger pointing to draw attention from the severity of them, instead of simply trying to remove them from our arguments.

  • 6. blueollie  |  September 4, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Two points

    1. The article is, of course, absolutely correct; a hypothesis test can only reject the null hypothesis or fail to reject it and

    2. This article will make no difference at all as the percentage of the population that understands what the concept of a “null hypothesis” is microscopically small.

    And of those who do understand what a null hypothesis is and continues to believe anyway eventually fall back to “I believe because it makes me feel better” situation. 🙂

  • 7. Cooper  |  September 4, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Thank God for helping you to write the above article. It is very enlightening. Unless of course the presupposition exists that there is no way He could have helped you write it. Of course we need to discount all the reasons first why he didn’t help you write it, then we will really know if He did or not. While we are waiting though, I think the Lord really inspired you to write a very good piece of literature.

  • 8. Cooper  |  September 4, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    Of course the above is based on the presupposition that some people enjoy very lame humor. 🙂

  • 9. Anonymous  |  September 4, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Leo, maybe I’m off my rocker here, but I think you’ve got that mixed up. As I recall, you assume the negation of you’re theorem, and then show how it causes a contradiction and is thus false, proving that the original theorem must be true (if not-A is false, A is true). Proof by Contradiction.

    But, as you said, that only works in formal logic.

  • 10. SnugglyBuffalo  |  September 4, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Whoops, I recently downloaded Google’s Chrome browser, forgot to put my name back in; Anonymous above is me.

  • 11. the chaplain  |  September 4, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    Leo and Snuggly – I thought Leo was referring to the reductio ad absurdum argument, which is rather complicated. Am I right, Leo? I only used it in logic class, but would likely have difficulty constructing a really useful reductio in real life.

  • 12. SnugglyBuffalo  |  September 5, 2008 at 2:18 am

    the chaplain-

    Yeah, that’s another phrase for it. But it’s still basically proving an assumption false by showing how it leads to a contradiction. If the assumption doesn’t lead to a contradiction, it means nothing to the validity of the assumption.

  • 13. Jason  |  July 16, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Pulling this one up from way back. As I de-convert I have had some contact with my pastor who in similar terms tried the presub side; basically admitting his view of the Bible was circular by accusing me of being circular to. It wasn’t very convincing, and I responded that I do trust at least some observation and don’t get so philosphical about whether I can know anything at all. But you spelled out here what the real problem is; he is trying to prove the bible starting from the Bible. I am trying to understand reality starting from the idea that I can know things at all. But I am not trying to prove I can know things at all, I just care about the rest of reality. If the first part is not true, well then it is not true and nothing else really matters. Maybe I am a brain in a jar. But even in this simulated world, it still acts like it would if it were real, so I’lll go with it.

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