Privileging the hypothesis: the most common flaw in arguments for the existence of God

I believe the bad reasoning found in O’Reilly’s argument for the existence of God is just one example of a more general problem  that is very common in arguments for the existence of God, including ones made by professional philosophers of religion. It’s related to the problems discussed in chapter 4, but it’s a little trickier to explain. Let’s see if I can.

The mistake is what Eliezer Yudkowsky called “Privileging the hypothesis.” He explains by way of an example:

Suppose that the police of Largeville, a town with a million inhabitants, are investigating a murder in which there are few or no clues—the victim was stabbed to death in an alley, and there are no fingerprints and no witnesses.

Then, one of the detectives says, “Well… we have no idea who did it… no particular evidence singling out any of the million people in this city… but let’s consider the hypothesis that this murder was committed by Mortimer Q. Snodgrass, who lives at 128 Ordinary Ln.  It could have been him, after all.”

Yudkowsky claims that if the detectives do this, they are not only guilty of bad reasoning, they’re violating Mortimer’s rights. He elaborates a little further:

This is true even if the detective is not claiming that Mortimer “did” do it, but only asking the police to spend time pondering that Mortimer might have done it—unjustifiably promoting that particular hypothesis to attention.  It’s human nature to look for confirmation rather than disconfirmation. Suppose that three detectives each suggest their hated enemies, as names to be considered; and Mortimer is brown-haired, Frederick is black-haired, and Helen is blonde.  Then a witness is found who says that the person leaving the scene was brown-haired.  “Aha!” say the police.  “We previously had no evidence to distinguish among the possibilities, but now we know that Mortimer did it!”

How does this apply to religion?

This is just the same fallacy committed, on a much more blatant scale, by the theist who points out that modern science does not offer an absolutely complete explanation of the entire universe, and takes this as evidence for the existence of Jehovah.  Rather than Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or a trillion other gods no less complicated—never mind the space of naturalistic explanations!

To talk about “intelligent design” whenever you point to a purported flaw or open problem in evolutionary theory is, again, privileging the hypothesis—you must have evidence already in hand that points to intelligent design specifically in order to justify raising that particular idea to our attention, rather than a thousand others…

Someone who spends all day thinking about whether the Trinity does or does not exist, rather than Allah or Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is more than halfway to Christianity.  If leaving, they’re less than half departed; if arriving, they’re more than halfway there.

Perhaps an even better way to explain the relevance to religion is through a tighter analogy to the detectives who wrongly focused on Mortimer, Frederick, and Helena when they really needed to pick the culprit out of the million people in Largeville.

The equivalent mistake for religion, which too many people make, works like this: when they’re trying to figure out what the world is like, there are countless possibilities they ignore completely, and instead focus all their attention on Christianity (as expounded by their beloved pastor Mike), atheism (as expounded by Professor McInfidel) and Islam (as expounded by their beloved pastor Mike).

I don’t know that anyone ever explicitly reasons that way, but terrible arguments for the existence of God like O’Reilly’s start to make a bit of sense if this is, on some level, what people are doing. If Pastor Mike’s account of Islam seems unattractive and Professor McInfidel can’t explain where the moon came from, that’s a reason to lean towards thinking Christianity According to Mike is the truth… if you started off with only those three otopions

Or, as I pointed out in chapter 1, disproving philosophical views like naturalism doesn’t prove there are any gods. But if you wrongly consider too few options at the start, disproving naturalism can look like a big win for Christianity According to Mike, since Professor McInfidel is a naturalist.

A third big offender of this sort is the argument from design, which claims that we can somehow show that the life on Earth and/or the universe was designed, and from there infers God. The most obvious problem with this argument is that there’s no reason a designer would have to be much like the God of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. But privileging the God hypothesis makes the mistake understandable.

Privileging the God hypothesis is a mistake related to the failure to take the Outsider Test for Faith. But it’s harder to get free of if you were raised in a country like the US. Plenty of people in the US know enough of Islam to ask themselves “what if I saw the same ‘evidence’ given for Islam?” It’s harder to get outside of thinking in terms of generic monotheism (belief in only one god.)

The answer, I think, is to try to think up alternatives to God that nobody believes in. Here’s an example from Richard Carrier:

In the beginning was God. And He was alone. Lamenting that there were no others to enjoy Being, no others to love and be loved, no others to think and create, He resolved to give His life so that beings like Him might be, and love, and enjoy life. So He exploded His body, and He was no more, but out of His body came the physical Universe, and out of His blood came the realm and possibility of mind. There was no other way, such were the limits even upon the all-powerful and all-knowing. And He so arranged His death that the embers would one day generate mindful beings such as us, who may be, and love, and know, and do (Sense and Goodness Without God pp. 253-254).

In a previous post, I gave many other examples like this while discussing the argument from design.

Many people will react to this by thinking, “if I’m arguing with Professor McInfidel, why do I need to worry about any of this? Professor McInfidel doesn’t believe any of those crazy views, so why can’t I focus on what he believes?”

The problem with response is that if your argument for the existence of God would work just as well as an argument for any number alternatives which you reject, it isn’t a very good argument. If any number of hypotheses nobody believes are equally good explanations for the evidence you think we need God to explain, it isn’t very good evidence.

And in general, anytime you ignore equally good alternatives to your favored hypothesis, you’re privileging that hypothesis and the argument you’re making for it probably isn’t that good.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Recently I was involved in a discussion with a Catholic apologist about atheism. He said I was ignoring the serious arguments for Christianity. My response was he had yet to establish that gods exist. Once we agreed on the existence of gods, then we could discuss why his favorite god was the default over Wotan, Zeus or Huitzilopotchli. I haven’t heard back from him.

  • MNb0

    Not much new as far as I can see. Privileging the hypothesis is very close to the famous God of the gaps. As far as Richard Carrier’s exploding god goes we atheists already have The Flying Spaghetti Monster. This one has the advantage of a complete theology build around it.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I was a little unsure of the helpfulness of this post. However, it was intended to evetually be part of a larger chapter in The Book, and maybe the value will be clearer in context. I’ll try to have the draft chapter posted soon.

      • eric

        If this is going in your book, you might mention Newton’s issue with Mercury in this section. That may be a real example of someone privileging an hypothesis: after ruling out his celestial mechanics, he figured it had to be angels.

        The Newton-Mercury case also illustrates why the god of the gaps argument is so appealing: because for many difficult problems, not only can we not think of a credible ‘third option,’ we can’t even conceive of what a third option would be like! It eludes our imagination.

        Nor will every such problem be solved in our lifetime. Mercury’s orbit was a hard problem: it took from 1687 to 1926 to figure it out; almost 250 years. The moral of this story is: even if you can’t think of an alternative other than design, even if you can’t conceive of what an alternative would even look like, and even if you’ve been looking for one for your entire life (and your parent’s life, and your grandparent’s life!) you are still unjustified in assuming what courts have called a ‘contrived dualism,’ i.e. that evidence against A is evidence for B.

  • graeme

    While I accept the sense of your argument, the problem with thinking up alternative gods that no-one believes in is that theists will often dismiss them solely based on the fact that no-one believes in them (missing that that is the point).

    A counterargument I have gotten from theists is that if the FSM (or any other gods I might make up) were real, then they would have let us know that they were real and so people would believe in them. The fact that no-one believes in them demonstrates that they are false.

    This is also how they argue against any arguments about Zeus or Thor. Namely that if Zeus or Thor were real they wouldn’t have let belief in them wane to zero and so we can dismiss them as false on that account.

    • mandrellian

      Regarding waning belief: how would the Christian apologist explain the waning in belief of their own theology? In places like the UK, Australia and to a lesser extent the US, it appears to be on the decline as more and more “no religion” and “non-affiliated” boxes are ticked on census and survey forms. I doubt they’d grant that their God doesn’t have the power to ensure belief. Maybe it’s those pesky militant secularists.

    • anteprepro

      A counterargument I have gotten from theists is that if the FSM (or any other gods I might make up) were real, then they would have let us know that they were real and so people would believe in them. The fact that no-one believes in them demonstrates that they are false.

      You say that like it is a bad thing for the original argument. Once you get them to say something like this, you’ve won. Their counter is plainly fallacious and anyone with the slightest amount of sense should be able to plainly see it. Your only response from then on should be to mention that their counterargument is ridiculous and to point and laugh if they fail to admit it. Pat yourself on the back, for Voltaire’s prayer has been answered.

    • kingoftoasty

      To which you can throw said believers all of the same lame ass arguments they use when you point out that there is no evidence for the existence of their magical sykman. “I feel the FSM’s presence in my heart when I pray” or “I see evidence of the FSM each time I witness the miracle of a perfect dish of pasta, sauced perfectly”, though its doubtful they would make the relevant connection – that the reasons those are lame arguments for the FSM are the same reasons they are lame arguments for “The Lawd, Gawd-eh!!”

    • @blamer

      Chris seems to be laying out the rationale that undermines the monotheist argument. I see graeme coming at this differently, as if this a believer-skeptic debate whereby he wants to corner the monotheist into retreating from reason to faith. Problem is that religion explicitly approves of that move, so this plays into the hands of the religious monotheists of the audience.

  • Brian

    It’s sort of a false n-lemma, isn’t it? If the only options presented are xtianity and naturalism (false dilemma), and naturalism is seen to be implausible or false, then xtianity it is…
    Or, if it’s not xmas day, it must be New Years day.

    • Albert Bakker

      I should think so, but with n unknown. And n must be unknown because there are future discoveries and hypotheses to which theism must also be superior and/or more probable.

  • Brian

    Pascal’s wager is an example of privileging the hypothesis. It assumes that there’s a dilemma between atheism, and the one true xtianity.

  • anteprepro

    Well put and it is a point that I think isn’t quite stressed enough in religious debates. It is an incredibly common and aggravating fallacy that is often rather well hidden, and even when it is exposed, the majority of believers don’t seem to quite grasp the problem. This needs to be brought up a lot more often, in my opinion. But that’s just my opinion, so that shouldn’t be worth a whole lot.

  • Ace of Sevens

    This is basically the strategy C.S. Lewis used in Miracles. By the end of chapter 2, he had narrowed the possibilities down to a completely mechanistic universe with no god or one with an all-powerful creator. He gave reason for elimination a lot of possibilities, but they don’t hold up.

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