t f p g+ YouTube icon

Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 1

Bookmark and Share

February 28, 2013 Tags: Lives of Faith
Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

My previous column offered a brief overview of the life and work of John Polkinghorne. This column introduces a few of the ideas and attitudes at the core of his thought.

Understanding John Polkinghorne: Natural Theology

John Polkinghorne likes to describe himself as a “bottom-up thinker,” whereas many theologians (in his view) are “top-down” thinkers. What does he mean by this?

“I like to start with the phenomena, with things that have happened, and then try to build up an explanation and an understanding from there,” Polkinghorne explains. The “top-down” thinker, on the other hand, will, “go the other way: start with some grand general ideas and use them to explain particular events.” He sees the former as the “natural” route for the scientist, who looks for “ideas which have reasons backing them up; these reasons will lie in the experience we consider, the events that motivate our belief.” (Searching for Truth, p. 14)

Thus, for Polkinghorne, theology and science are “cousinly” disciplines, in that both are open-minded searches for “motivated belief.” This contrasts starkly with the attitude of the “New Atheists,” for whom religion is a wholly unjustified leap of faith, in the complete absence of any evidence. Let’s be honest: many Christians do match that stereotype. Polkinghorne addresses this implicitly, when he says, “Revelation is not the presentation of unchallengeable dogmas for reception by the unquestioning faithful. Rather, it is the record of those transparent events or persons in which the divine will and presence have been most clearly seen.” (The Faith of a Physicist, pp. 5-6) For some Christians, this may be a step too far, but for many Christians who work in scientific fields it’s an accurate description of what makes sense. They want to know why something is worthy of belief, in religion no less than in science. Blind faith is not enough for them, and it’s not enough for Polkinghorne.

Perhaps his most fundamental challenge to the New Atheists, however, is his view that both nature and our ability to have a science of nature (i.e., our ability to understand nature at all) make more sense within a theistic worldview than without it. Where Dawkins and others seem to think that science comes with an atheist worldview attached at the hip, Polkinghorne realizes that, “Physics constrains metaphysics, but it no more determines it than the foundations of a house determine the precise form of the building erected on them.” In short, it’s a two-way street. While, “Science offers an illuminating context within which much theological reflection can take place,” science in turn, “needs to be considered in the wider and deeper context of intelligibility that a belief in God affords.” In the next few months, we’ll see more precisely what Polkinghorne has in mind. (Theology in the Context of Science, pp. 60 and 95)

As I’ve just implied, Polkinghorne devotes considerable attention to natural theology, more indeed than many other contemporary theologians, who largely ignore it for a combination of reasons that I cannot explore adequately here. However, his approach to natural theology is more modest than that of many previous authors, especially those who stand strongly in the line of William Paley, by emphasizing the inexplicable, stunning intricacy of living things as irrefutable evidence for God’s existence. I’ll develop this point more fully in a future column. Instead of seeking knock-down “proofs” of design in nature—thereby “proving” God’s existence to skeptics—Polkinghorne claims instead that theism makes more sense of our whole experience of the world than atheism does, all things considered. For more on this, see my earlier column.

His approach to natural theology can be understood specifically in terms of three larger, metaphysical questions about nature and our ability to understand it. I’ll present these in the words of three non-Christian scientists who also voiced them.

Why does the world make sense at all?

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” (Antonina Vallentin, Einstein: A Biography, p. 24) Polkinghorne wants to know why a science of nature is possible at all—a fundamental question that science itself cannot answer.

Why is mathematics so powerful for understanding nature, down deep?

No one got at this issue better than Eugene Wigner. In his wonderful paper, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (1960), Wigner spoke eloquently of, “the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.” Polkinghorne sees this as, “a hint of the presence of the Creator, given to us creatures who are made in the divine image.” He also underscores a related question, “Are mathematical truths invented or discovered?” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, pp. 4 and 126)

Paul Dirac (Source)

Why, specifically, is “beautiful” mathematics exactly what we need to understand nature?

Wigner’s brother-in-law, Paul Dirac, once said, “God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.” (Behram N. Kursunoglu and Eugene Paul Wigner, eds., Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist, p. xv) I don’t mean to imply that Dirac believed in God—quite the opposite. But, like Einstein, he was not averse to invoking “God” to express his deepest convictions about nature.

Polkinghorne wants to go more deeply than Dirac into this astonishing fact about nature: “There is no a priori reason why beautiful equations should prove to be the clue to understanding nature; why fundamental physics should be possible; why our minds should have such ready access to the deep structure of the universe. It is a contingent fact that this is true of us and of our world, but it does not seem sufficient simply to regard it as a happy accident.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 4)

Overall, Polkinghorne seeks to go “beyond science,” to borrow the title of one of his books, in search of deeper explanations for such things as these. The New Atheists reject that sort of enterprise out of hand. Since science cannot provide the answers, they proclaim, the questions themselves are meaningless; therefore, our efforts to answer them cannot produce evidence for God’s existence.

I beg to differ. Surely it’s fully in keeping with the scientific enterprise to search for deeper answers than science alone can give about the intelligibility of nature, questions that many great scientists have raised about the ultimate mysteries that confront them when they do their work as well as they can.

Looking Ahead

Our discussion of Polkinghorne’s views will continue in about two weeks, when we will explore aspects of his theology of nature and his overall attitude toward science and Christianity, as seen in his approach to the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime, please read the essay by Eugene Wigner that I linked above, as background for understanding Polkinghorne’s natural theology.


John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998).

John Polkinghorne, From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography (2008).

John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (1994). This book contains the Gifford Lectures for 1993-94. Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, another major figure in the science-religion “dialogue,” wrote an appreciative review. A review by Jewish physicist Baruch Sterman summarizes the book’s overall religious attitude.

John Polkinghorne, Searching for Truth: Lenten Meditations on Science & Faith (1996).

John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009). My review for First Things online is here


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 3 of 3   « 1 2 3
GJDS - #77318

March 9th 2013

Lou #77315

Very well, I will continue the topic you had raised, the concept of god. Your statement is that you arrive at a ‘null hypothesis.’ My response may perhaps be stated as follows:

(a)    Human beings have created gods for themselves and these can be considered as concepts; Christianity has shown that in pagan religions, these are human constructs, conceptually and also of wood or stone. Idols were eventually abandoned.

(b)   If we now accept that human beings cannot create gods, we have an absence of such a concept, which if I understand you, may be your ‘null hypothesis’.

I have also provided a brief statement regarding the Faith position of Christianity; obviously as an atheist you do not accept it, but I cannot see what defence you feel I need to make to you regarding the Faith.

Your subsequent point has been (as I understand it) that accounts in the Bible regarding the history of Israel present activities that you attribute to the God of Abraham, and which we regard as the Logos who became Christ. I regard this history as one in which Israel struggled to live according to the teachings of Moses, and the prophets were primarily interested in ensuring their people did not slip into idolatry and prevalent pagan religions. Obviously this is a chequered history and I do not know of any Christian that thinks otherwise. My response to you is that you conflate activities of Israel with attributes of God. 

Responding to your comments is not a defence of any so called presuppositions. A detailed discussion of the OT, followed by consideration of the Orthodox doctrine, would be needed as a background to a fuller discussion of the Christian faith, to enable me to understand specific objections you make wrt Christianity.

I have tried to get some type of overview of your position, and I simply cannot go past these remarks. You also discuss ethics and morality, but even then I find you do not consider the basis for these matters as good and evil, but some sort of relative better or worse.

Lou we all have our opinions, and yours are somewhat novel to me since I have not heard an atheist discuss his views in a forum such as this. I simply state that exchanging opinions is fine, but I do not see this as a debate – the reason is simply because I cannot get a solid topic, besides God and gods, and absence of such, from you for such a debate.    

GJDS - #77319

March 9th 2013

The last line should read ... “for such a debate.” My strongest evidence against evolution is derived from my typing skills - they obviously devolve with time, even though I cannot believe they can get worse!

Lou Jost - #77320

March 9th 2013

Thank you, that was actually very helpful. I hope during lunch I’ll have a moment to discuss some of those points. Regards, Lou

Lou Jost - #77323

March 9th 2013

Let’s look at your point (a). You recognize that humans make gods, either as concepts or as physical things to worship. That is certainly true.

Then you say that Christianity shows all the other gods except the Christian one are false, since they are human constructs. What I have been pointing out is that other religions say the same thing: Allah or Ganesh or whatever is the real god, and all the other ones are just human constructs.

So I have been asking you to put your finger on what is the difference between the Christians’ assertion that they have the true god, and the Muslims’ equally heartfelt and sincere assertion that they have the true god? What reason can you give to accept one of these claims and not the other? The Hindus and Muslims can point to miracles, and sublime teachings, and deep resonance with their ethical sensibility, and other things that indicate to them that their god is the true one. These are similar to the kinds of reasons Christians give for thinking that their god is the true one and the rest are human constructions. I don’t see anything special about the Christian argument that makes it superior to the corresponding Muslim argument. All of these religions have such huge cultural components that I think not just that 99% of them are man-made, as you believe, but that 100% of them are man-made.

I am sure everyone here recognizes the chequered history of the Israelites in the OT, and everyone probably has their own way of rationalizing it. But clearly Israel did many of the worst things under the direct orders of their god, or at least that is what the bible says. When they didn’t kill all the people, god got angry. Babies were ordered killed; virgins were to be taken as sex slaves, etc. Those were direct orders from your god, according to the bible. So I don’t think I am conflating Israel’s actions with your god’s actions; the OT is often very clear that these were god’s commands.

Now frankly this does not matter much to me; god could be a jerk and still be god, or maybe he just had motives beyond what we can understand. So I really don’t feel that this is a strong argument against the existence of this god. Rather, it is a strong argument against the idea that this is the god that gives us our ethics.

Whatever we feel about the ethics of the OT, this is really irrelevant to the main question: what evidence is there for any of the gods that people claim are real?  Is the evidence for one god stronger than that for another? Remember, most of the world, not just atheists, think that Christianity is a man-made and false religion. So you do have some explaining to do, if you want to address the world rather than the relatively small community of evangelical Christians.

Like atheists often say, in the end my conclusion is not much different from yours: you say 9999 of the 10000 gods are human creations, and I say 10000 of the 10000 are human creations. We mostly agree!


GJDS - #77329

March 9th 2013

I have tried to give a cogent reply. You have accepted point (a) and then misinterpreted point (b), which speaks to your ‘null hypothesis’.

From what you keep saying, you feel that Christianity condemns all other faiths. This is false, although historically many conflicts and grab for power may have been rationalised on the basis that one side is right and the other wrong, including their state controlled religion institutions. It is wrong to generalise in this way and then condense this as related to one god or other – people will try to justify evil any way they can. Perhaps your comments are better understood as a condemnation of politicised religious institutions, but I can only make my best guess on this.

The simplest answer to your take on this matter is that ‘God makes His sun shine on all’. I do not think you understand the Christian faith, although I suspect you may have read a great deal about many religions. Islam also teaches against idols. The Buddha teaches that peoples suffering stems from a (broad) ignorance and enlightenment can alleviate such suffering. You are seriously wrong in believing that the Christian faith says anything beyond the need to do good and avoid evil – additionally we are taught that all of us fall short and God has provided forgiveness through Christ – the only condition is that we repent from doing evil and choose to do good. What the good is, is also clearly shown. You do not appear to understand that God’s grace is not selectively given based on which god is this or that. Idolatry is bad because it conditions people and they can be manipulated by those who create these idols. Any faith that teaches we should seek for what is true and good is consistent with the Christian faith.

I am not sure I can make sense of the rest of your comments – Christianity was made popular centuries ago and institutionalised by the various states – this was not a good thing for the reasons I have given for all such institutions; as Christ stated, His kingdom is not of this world. Christianity has condemned evil acts, and all Christians are taught to this, whatever the cultural setting. The Gospels teach us that God calls people to faith in Christ, and this is an act of Grace – I cannot see a popularity contest or some sort of political campaign in this. Finally the test is on what a person does in terms of good and evil – we have discussed this previously. 

Lou Jost - #77333

March 9th 2013

We do seem to keep misunderstanding each other. I agreed with only the first sentence of point A, and never referred to point B. I am concerned about the truth claims of Christianity versus the truth claims of other religions. You say Christianity and Islam concur in some things. Yes they do, I agree. But as you said under point A, Christianity considers the Islamic god to be a human construct. And Islam considers your Christian god to be a human construct.  I am only trying to get you to see the symmetry of the situation and get you to tell me why one of these claims is true and the other is not.

GJDS - #77332

March 9th 2013

Getting back to the endless discussion on evolution: I have posted previously comments on the semantic nature of Darwin’s ideas and how this leads to models which invariably prove adequate for some data sets and inadequate for others. An interesting chapter, well worth reading, is by M.A. Bedau, in, Mapping the Future of Biology and Evolution, Coehen, Renn and Gavroglu (ed). This lengthy quote may communicate his views on developing models to address complexity in ecosystems, “These models are useful in part because they can provide clear and decisive refutation of various hypotheses about how to explain the trend of increasing organism complexity. Even more important, in general only these models can provide clear and compelling explanations for the characteristic behavior of complex adaptive systems like the evolving biosphere. Thus, these models turn out to be exactly the right kind of tool for exploring how to explain the trend of increasing complexity; furthermore, they do so in a way that is readily subject to extension and empirical corroboration. However, these models are no panacea. They can be misleading or misinterpreted, and they have limitations. As we will see when we examine specific examples, the proper use of constructive models and the proper interpretation of their behavior requires care and experience, and creating especially insightful models is extremely challenging.”

 He goes on to discuss the arrow of complexity hypothesis and shows the chequered history of emergence – and shows that some bio-scientists propose a purpose or regularity in this, while others rely on ‘replaying the tape of life’ argument. His concluding remarks include, “The key point is that none has yet produced a convincing example of the growth of organism complexity,” and “The key question, then, is to determine what mechanisms would suffice to achieve this kind of qualitatively expanding evolutionary process.” He shows that these mechanisms have yet to be elucidated.

GJDS - #77336

March 9th 2013

Lou #77333

Yes we are misunderstanding each other - point (a) cannot possibly be used to discuss anything but pagan religions that used physical constructs and such to provide idols as gods. You keep referring to your null hypothesis for atheism, and I have responded to that, yet you do not refer to this. Why is that? The discussion is related to your claims that the only conclusion that you have been able to reach is this ‘null hypothesis’.

You now change the discussion from some attempt to compare various religions on your assumption that Christianity somehow condemns them, whereas I have shown that your claim is at least un-informed and at worst false.

You now change this to what you seem to imagine ‘truth claims’ that you have not stated as belonging to any particular faith, and yet again make the uninformed statement that each faith you mention considers the other a human construct and has opposing ‘truth claims that you imagine’. Islam accepts that Christ is the Son of God. How does this end up with your bizarre ascertain that each condemns the other as derived from my point (a)? I have stated on more than one occasion that the pursuit of truth is common (especially to the Christian and Muslim faith). You again make the absurd claim that each is somehow saying something else.

I think our conversation is getting back to the tiresome mantra of atheists – all religions are wrong and evil, but atheists have the answer to all such evil. I think you lot a very much mistaken.

Lou Jost - #77338

March 10th 2013

That’s not what I am saying at all. But I want to thank you for making the effort to engage my arguments, even if I can’t seem to communicate them properly to you.

Just regarding your last point, you said in Point A that “Human beings have created gods for themselves and these can be considered as concepts; Christianity has shown that in pagan religions, these are human constructs, conceptually and also of wood or stone. “

I took this to mean that Christianity shows that the god concept of other religions are human constructs, whether the god was a physical idol or some conceptual god. And I took “pagan” to be a synonym of “non-Christian”. I had thought you believe that non-Christian gods, such as Allah, are not real, and I thought you believed that the miracles recorded in other holy books did not really happen.. If that is not what you meant, then yes, I misinterpreted you, and I’ll try again. But today and tomorrow I will be away from internet so it will have to wait.

Again, thanks at least for trying to understand and respond  to my comments.

GJDS - #77339

March 10th 2013


While I found the novelty of exchanges with an atheist interesting, I cannot see much value is using our time on further misscomunications. I remind you of an earlier comment I made, that I considered Orthodoxy, writings that stretch many centuries, delved in the Bible, and also my own experiences. I assumed that you had considered your Catholic (culture) in a similar way, and we could than compare our differing positions. I now realise that this assumption was incorrect - so I come back to my statement that goodwill overcomes all differences, as I indicated my interactions with my associates. Thanks for the conversation.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77346

March 10th 2013

Lou wrote:

I didn’t think I was avoiding selection; on the contrary. There is nothing requiring rationality in natural selection. Random variations arise through entirely physical processes. These variations make it more or less likely that the animal will reproduce, or influence the number of its offspring. But that effect is just caused by ordinary unthinking processes. A butterfly variation that is lighter than its peers might not absorb enough heat during the day to develop its eggs, and so its genes disappear from the gene pool. There is no thinking, no attribution of rationality to nature in this process.

Above you wrote that evolutionary biology had accepted the ecological view of Natural Selection.  Now you spout off the tired old unproven Malthusian Darwinian understanding of Natural Selection.

All processes are rational in that they are understandable.  We have said that nature is unthinking, but that does not make it irrational.  If it were truly irrational it would operate without rhyme or reason, which it does not.  You have created the false definition that rational means thinking which leads you to a false conclusion.   

You use the example of a butterfy changing color.  This is a variation and most of us know that variations are random, not predictable.  Your point is that if this change does not meet the survival needs of the butterfy, this strain will die out.  Obvious point.

However this does make evolution irrational because it is based entirely on the happenstance of the organism creating the right variation.  Ecology knows that evolution or change in organisms is more complicated and yet more rational that that.

Evolution takes place when organisms change to take advantage of new environmental niches.  Again most lay people know this if you ask them, but you don’t and neither do Dawkins and other Darwinists.  These are rational changes based on rational processes.

Also while natural processes are unthinking, organisms are not.  Plants and animals have the differing rational abilities to adapt to the environment, even if it means simple migration. 

Nature is rational.  Nature is predictable.  Nature is comprehensible.  Nature is not a collection of irrational processes, but a system of rational processes working together to produce a rational universe that impersonal irrational chance cannot explain.  Like it or not random chance is the only alternative to rationality 

Science and math demonstrate this.  If you want to believe that our world came into being by chance or a multiverse system, that is your prerogative, but for most people the simplest, most rational, and most probable answer is God. 


beaglelady - #77409

March 12th 2013

Nature is predictable.


So we can now predict earthquakes?  That’s incredibly good news.  Be sure to share this with the USGS

Ted Davis - #77407

March 12th 2013

GIven the topic of this column (as vs the next one, which is coming very soon), let me recommend this upcoming radio program to readers: http://philosophytalk.org/shows/upcoming

It features my longtime friend and colleague, philosopher Robin Collins, discussing the fine tuning of the universe.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77421

March 12th 2013

Now I would like to speak to Lou’s use of the concept of “null hypothesis.”

From the internet we get this definition.  The null hypothesis is the hypothesis being tested.

The claim is that at least for him, atheism is the starting point, the default p[osition of his thinking, and therefore Christians must prove that the Christian God existsw to change his mind, which of course is not possible.

The problem is that neither God does not exist nor God does exist is a good working hypothesis.  We need to qualify these statements.  For example, If God does not exist there can be no moral law, and if God does exist we can expect that logically would be moral law. 

These are rational implications from the existence or non existence of God.  While there are definitely some people who maintain that moral law does not exist, and the rules of statistics allow for some exceptions, I believe that most people, including Lou frrom what I read, think that moral law does exist, and therefore his null hypothesis is incorrect.  

GJDS - #77426

March 12th 2013

My take on the null hypothesis in this discussion has been stated before, “If we now accept that human beings cannot create gods, we have an absence of such a concept, which if I understand you, may be your ‘null hypothesis’.”

If Lou is proposing this then his statement is meaningless - we need a starting hypothesis (his null hypothesis) and another one so that we may consider its testability relative to Lou’s position. If we accept that the Christian faith does not accept conceptualised gods, than we do not have a concept to test or argue. My take on this (and I am not saying I understand what an atheist means, so I try and provide a rational for his statements) is to change the argument into something along these lines - you believe in God, therefore you have constructed this God in some way - it is for you to prove this concept in some way, otherwise you do not have a testable concept. We say this is untrue, and the circular argument goes on and on.

The error in this line of argument is obvious - the atheist has now decided what a Christian believes but it is up to the Christian to prove that the atheist is not in error. An odd approach for some who claim they rely on the scientific method and a reasoned approach.

The alternate atheist outlook that I understand may be valid is that they proclaim an absence of belief. In this case it is a given position by them, which they contrast with the Faith position of a Christain (or any other faith). This outlook does not lend itself to arguments of testability, since we cannot test an absence of anything.

Their argument on ethics is more interesting, but I think it inevitably reduces to a relative outlook that seeks to be grounded in physicalism - otherwise we end up with good atheist bad atheist situation. I have stated that our actions may be viewed as good and bad; the atheist response is mainly, “Who decides what is good and bad?”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77441

March 13th 2013


I have stated that our actions may be viewed as good and bad; the atheist response is mainly, “Who decides what is good and bad?”

The only valid answer is “God decides what is right and what is wrong.”  This is God’s world, God created it and God sustains it.  God knows how it is supposed to work and how humans are made to live.  Therefore God is the only One Who is qualified to judge human beings.

This is one of the great messages of the NT.  “Judge (or condemn) NOT (others,) so that you will not be judged (or condemned by God.)” [paraphrased for meaning]  

Only God judges people, but humans can evaluate human actions and decisions based on the 10 Commandments and the Great Commandments of Jesus to Love God, others, and ourselves.

Even then God judges humans by their relationship to God, which is really only known by God and themselves.  

GJDS is right.  God is not a concept.  God is the foundation of Reality.  In the Bible God is the Source of harmony and meaning.  God is the difference between chaos and cosmos. 

Therefore if the universe is chaos, there is no God.  If the universe is cosmos, God reigns. 

Science really does not claim that Science is the Source of order of the universe, so science leaves plenty of room for God.  Only when some people claim that there is no Reality beyond the the physical universe do we have this problem.         

Darwin Guy Dan - #77445

March 13th 2013

Darwin Guy Dan - #77447

March 13th 2013

I am don’t know what the problem is.  For some reason my paste has yet to be accepted.  I will try again, below.

Darwin Guy Dan - #77446

March 13th 2013

Darwin Guy Dan - #77448

March 13th 2013

Darwin Guy Dan - #77518

March 16th 2013

Merv - #77690

March 21st 2013

This thread may be winding down, but I have a couple other things to add in case any of you are still checking in.

Darwin Guy Dan, I failed to notice until now one of your replies to me in an even older thread than this one—you asked me what I thought about “Infrastructure”?  If that is still an open question, you’ll have to clarify what you are asking about.  I wasn’t deliberately ignoring you—just hadn’t been back to check for  a while.

GJDS, Roger, and Lou;  As I currently understand a typical usage for the term ‘null hypothesis’ I’m not sure why you all have a problem with Lou’s usage of it.   I do admit it can be confusing as to which choice should be considered the ‘default’.   But one of the definitions that I saw that made sense (Wikipedia) clarifies that a null hypothesis can never be proven (or would be exceedingly difficult to prove).  You can disprove it and you can fail to disprove it, but those will be the two possible outcomes of any experimentation or observations.  I think an example that helps clarify this assymetry between two options might be none other than Russel’s teapot.  (Bertrand Russel was a famous mathematician who likened belief in God to belief in an orbiting teapot.—there are problems with his comparison, of course, but that isn’t the point at hand.)   Somebody hypothesizes that a teapot (somewhere other than earth) is orbiting our sun.  The null hypothesis would be that there is no such teapot matching that description.  One can disprove the null hypothesis cleanly and unequivocally by finding the teapot in question.  But one can never disprove the null hypothesis because if they go out and search and fail to find it, the best that they can claim is that their search failed.  It could still be out there somewhere that they didn’t search.   So short of an ability to exhaustively search everywhere no one will be disproving the null hypothesis.  

It seems reasonable to me to, as Lou has suggested, take the proposition:  “there is a Christian God” as a positive claim with the null hypothesis being that there is no such God.  While it isn’t a scientifically testable proposition in the first place (we will probably continue to disagree about that), it nevertheless does seem to philosophically fit the normal usage of some of these labels.  If a credentialled philosopher pops in here to correct us all, then I’ll be eager to what needs correction.   I do agree that it is incoherent at every level for Christians or atheists alike to be speaking of ‘invented gods’.  That has definitional problems (with regard to its relation to the Christian concept of God) that render such a phrase contradictory no matter what the beliefs of the person using it.  There simply is no logical way whatsoever for man to invent God.


Merv - #77692

March 21st 2013

Make that two ‘L’s on Bertrand Russell’s last name.  My apologies to the late and great mathematician.


Merv - #77694

March 21st 2013

Alas for my not proof-reading before hitting the send button!  The paragraph:

One can disprove the null hypothesis cleanly and unequivocally by finding the teapot in question.  But one can never disprove [this should have been “prove”] the null hypothesis because if they go out and search and fail to find it, the best that they can claim is that their search failed.

Also make ‘assymetry’ into ‘asymmetry’.  I’d better quit before making more of an ass of myself.

Merv - #77695

March 21st 2013

...and of couse the last line of that paragraph should read:  ”...and no one will be proving the null hypothesis.”

No wonder people are confused about this.  If writers mix up those two words as much as I just did!    It would be the coolest thing if Biologos allowed us editing privileges on our own posts.  I could clean up my mess.

GJDS - #77696

March 21st 2013

Logic to one side Merv, we generally understand that human beings have created idols for thousands of years. I was trying to show that a conceptualisation of god is similar even if it does not end up as an artifact made of wood or stone. It is this that puts views of atheists like Lou into this catagory - they insist that they have concepts of gods, which they then argue cannot be god in any sense. This is worse then setting up a straw man argument; it is circular reasoning, but they insist it must be correct - this is why I insist if they believe themselves they must provide their own hypothesis of atheism - as far as I can make of their position, it is either an absence of all belief (they just do not believe in any god(s) which should end all discussion) or they are providing for themselves a concept of an anti-god or a falsehoos that they then insist is ‘the other’ (by this I mean religious views as other-then atheists views). (I agree with you on editing and spell checking these posts).

GJDS - #77700

March 21st 2013

Just to be clear Merv, I can construct my argument using your teapot analogy; teapots are human constructs and arguments about the existence of such can be tested and proven. It is unlikely that the statement ‘there is a teapot orbiting the earth’, would lead to arguments on the existence of teapots, so puting forward a null hypothesis on the existence of human concepts (however this is put) is a pointless statement. Since the Christian faith teaches God cannot be a human construct, the line of reasoning put by Lou is also pointless - if I can make more of his comments, it is that he seems to imply that ‘all of those religions’ are saying this anyhow, but then they also dissagree (and then he adds singular events that he believes adds to these other religions as different miracles and results from prayer)- an incoherent outlook that seems to be derived from a pointless hypothesis. He is at liberty to put forward an alternate, and hopefully, coherent argument if he wishes, but I can only comment on what he says in his posts.

Merv - #77713

March 22nd 2013

I agree that there are many false gods—many of the mental constructs that we still need to be warned away from today (e.g.  money or power) as well as the old kind made of wood and stone.  And of course all of these are false because they aren’t God even though we try to put them on the throne.  So I think you and I are essentially in agreement on that.  I just object to atheists claiming that we have “invented God” which is a logically incoherent claim no matter who you are or what you believe.   It sounds like you and I probably agree on that if I understand you correctly.

Don’t make too much of Russell’s teapot analogy.  It isn’t about teapots but about claims (such as ‘there is a pink Cadillac orbiting in the asteroid belt) which are obviously silly but also which could never be disproven.  So the main point I was reaching for is:  there is not always a symmetry between claims (either A or B with each being on more or less equal footing).  Sometimes one claim (there is no pink Cadillac out there) is in obviously better standing than its alternative claim.  That isn’t to say the null hypothesis is always better or should be default.  As a Christian I’ve obviously rejected the null hypotheis: “there is no God” and (unlike the case for pink Cadillacs,  spaghetti monsters, or orbiting teapots) I have cause to believe in God.


GJDS - #77716

March 22nd 2013


Yes we are in agreement - I was interested in pointing out the flaw in such an argument and also show that atheists indulge in a great deal of incoherence, especially when they begin with vast generalities (e.g. all religions are ....) and then act surprised when their silly assumptions are shown to be false (not to mention the ignorance and arrogance such statements portray).

Page 3 of 3   « 1 2 3