Claims, Hypotheses, and the Burden Of Proof

What evidence do you have that God DOES NOT exist?  If you’re a reasonable person, your response should be somewhere in the neighborhood of “absolutely none.”  Interestingly, this is roughly the same evidence you have that underwear-stealing gnomes don’t exist, or, for that matter, that leprauchans don’t exist.

It’s a very unscientific position a person takes when they ask someone to prove that something does not exist.

In science and medicine, various statistical measures are used to test claims.  For instance, if a drug company is testing to see if the drug they’ve developed is any good, the core hypothesis they test against is whether there is any difference between their drug and placebo.  Framed as a hypothesis:

H0:  Drug A = Placebo [this is the null hypothesis]
HA:  Drug A (not equal) placebo [this is the alternative hypothesis]

If you ever read a scientific paper regarding claims like these, they’ll often make reference to P-values.  These P-values represent the probability that H0 is true.  In other words, the lower the P-value, the more likelihood that what is being tested means something.  A P-value of 0.01 means that there is a 1% chance that Drug A has the same outcomes as placebo.  The effect of a statement like that is that it’s very unlikely that Drug A has the same outcomes as placebo; in other words, Drug A is different than placebo.

Framing the God question in these terms, you’d arrive at a hypothesis like the following:

H0:  God = 0 (God does not exist)  [this is the null hypothesis]
HA:  God > 0 (God exists)  [this is the alternative hypothesis]

This is not a very testable hypothesis.  How could you demonstrate that God > 0?  If you answer something like:  look at how life exists…or the universe is proof that God exists, my response would be:  why does that require God?  Are you certain that it couldn’t have come from something else?  Or are you certain that the answer to these things isn’t something that we haven’t yet discovered? If so, how so?

This framework by which we approach hypothesis testing is quite reliable.  We construct tests that are designed to deliver a probability that the null hypothesis is true.  Because of that framework, we hardly ever get to say we’ve proved something.  We only frame it such that we’ve disproved something, or failed to reject something.  In other words, we can never know if we’re right…all we can know is if we’re wrong.  But arriving at the same conclusion over and over again (either by rejecting or failing to reject a claim), we get good insight into the likelihood a hypothesis is correct or not.

This is a humble way to approach the natural world.  It puts the burden of proof where it belongs, and it’s reliable.  If we test a hypothesis many times in many different ways, and we consistently find that we fail to reject a hypothesis, that adds weight to that hypothesis, and with other corroboration, might allow it to graduate to a theory, which is the highest level of science (general theory of relativity, theory of evolution, theory of gravity, etc).


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

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