On the Primacy of Nondisprovable Hypotheses, Part II

On the Primacy of Nondisprovable Hypotheses, Part II February 23, 2016

The eccentric Russian philosopher George Gurdjieff, thinking about the contentious interface between “science” and “religion,” introduced a principle that has been called Gurdjieff’s Partition: whereas the scientific method can deal with only disprovable hypotheses (for convenience, DH), religious beliefs must instead be considered nondisprovable hypotheses (for more convenience, NDH). That is, if a statement could be falsified by any conceivable fact, whether that fact has been discovered or not, then that statement falls in the turf of science. A scientific experiment is always intended to discover a fact that could contradict and thus falsify a hypothesis, whereas a fact that seems to support the hypothesis tells one nothing.

In contrast, an NDH always asserts a value; values exist only in human consciousness, not in “objective” reality. They are not deduced from facts, and inherently cannot be contradicted directly by facts. Any assertion about the existence, nonexistence, or characteristics of the divine is inherently nondisprovable, and therefore cannot be investigated by means of the scientific method. Suppose we assert, “Human life is sacred”; the existence of sociopaths does not falsify that belief.

An NDH must, however, have at least one practical consequence, since an NDH is always intended to provide an explanation for some aspect of human experience. If an NDH had no practical consequences at all, no one would have any reason to believe such an NDH to be true.[1] Hence the “truth” of an NDH is a concept very different from that of the truth of a DH. However, obviously some NDHs are less valuable or useful than others. To test the truth of an NDH, William James and other pragmatists suggested that we evaluate its consequences. This concept is not significantly different from Paul’s response in First Corinthians when asked about how to evaluate revelations, prophecies, and speaking in tongues. He said, “Test the spirits. Ask, does this build up the community?” That is, does the supposed information tend to make people better, or worse?

One can answer the Disbeliever’s question, about why “God” does not prove his existence to us—although never to his satisfaction. For example, let us look at the NDH embodied in the opening question and answer of the Baltimore Catechism, because I now do understand its logic, and because I think it is an axiom that underlies many systems of faith. However, I will replace the word “God” used in the catechism with one that does not drag along unjustified assumptions.

If it is true that the Goddess created us in order that we might love Her, and

If it is true that love is not love unless it is offered freely, without any coercion,

Then it must be true that we must have a completely free will in order to love completely.

To be completely free, we must be free to also doubt Her existence and to choose to not love Her.

Therefore, in order for us to love Her, She must always protect our free will, that is, our freedom to choose.

If She were to prove Her existence irrefutably to us, by appearing physically in Her full glory, we would no longer have free choice; we would be compelled to believe in Her existence and thus would no longer be able to love completely freely.

The preceding describes a deity who wants us to love Her because She already loves us, that is, a loving Mother, who would want to always protect us. Does She always do so? Given all the pain, misery, and cruelty in the world, it would seem not. How can that be explained?

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis considered this issue. Suppose a man falls off a cliff. Why doesn’t “God” save his life by halting his fall? The only way to do so might be to turn off the force of gravity, which is generated by the existence of mass. To turn off gravity would require eliminating the mass of the entire Earth. Doing so to save one life, at the expense of all life on Earth, would be rather counterproductive.

Lewis’s actual argument is that, in order to protect us from harming ourselves or from being harmed, “God” would have to be altering the laws of physics constantly. If that were so, we would have no way to predict the consequences of any action. We would not be able to make meaningful choices, would therefore, in practice, have no free will, and therefore could not freely choose to love. One can thus deduce that, in the Divine agenda, protecting our free will is more important than protecting our lives. Still, protecting our lives is important, as long as it can be done without damaging our free will. So, is that done?

Scott Peck points out that, whereas some people seem to be accident-prone, most people appear instead to be accident-resistant. The number of near-misses in our lives seems to be statistically unlikely. He points to auto accidents in which the person walks away unscratched, even though the car has been so totally demolished that it seems impossible that he could even have survived. The golf ball that just misses one’s head, the short circuit that somehow does not start a fire, all the little incidents about which one feels, “Wow, that was lucky.” But is luck an adequate explanation for such a pattern?

One saying I know from AA is, “’Coincidence’ is a word that an atheist uses to explain away a miracle.” If one supposes that a “miracle” requires a violation of the laws of physics, then, as I just argued, miracles are not possible. But that objection is actually about the laws as defined in Newtonian physics. The laws of quantum mechanics are quite different. If any sort of “divine intervention” can be considered a miracle, then an intervention that does not damage our free will could be possible. In other words, there could be an intervention so subtle, and never directly perceivable, that afterward we are free to think, “Was that an intervention? Or just a coincidence?” That is, we are left free to choose what to believe. I suspect such interventions happen far more frequently than anyone generally admits, but people avoid discussing them, most often, I suppose, to avoid the scorn of the closed-minded.

In the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat, enclosed and thus unobservable in a box, the cat’s life depends on whether a quantum event occurs to release a poison gas. The event is random; there is no way to calculate whether the event has occurred already or not. The only way to know whether the cat is alive or dead is to open the box and look; it is our act of observation that collapses the quantum equation to a specific value, of 1 or 0. If the cat is dead, hasn’t it already been dead for a while before we open the box? No, as the mathematics work out, the cat exists in two parallel realities, being dead in one, alive in the other, until the instant when it is observed, That is, the cat is simultaneously dead and alive, the value of the equation is simultaneously 1 and 0. And this conclusion is no longer just speculation. Quantum computers are now being built in which each bit can have a value of 1 or 0 or both 1 and 0 at the same time. In physics, it now seems logically plausible that at the ultimately fundamental level, all physical reality consists of virtual particles that likewise have values of 1 and 0 simultaneously; that is, they simultaneously exist and do not exist. All of which brings us to the fundamental question of why anything exists at all.

More will be revealed.

[1] It is very difficult to think up an example of a nonconsequential NDH. It might be impossible to do so. Perhaps it might be possible to prove that doing so is impossible. I might attempt to try deriving such a proof—but not now.


You can find my books on Amazon:

A Tapestry of Witches: A History of the Craft in America, Vol. I, to the Mid-1970s.Tacoma, WA: Hierophant Wordsmith Press, 2015.

Aradia and the Books of the Sacred Marriage: A Tale of Love, Witches, and Gnostics. Tacoma, WA: Hierophant Wordsmith Press, 2016.

Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches: A Social History of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. Tacoma, WA: Hierophant Wordsmith Press, 2011.

Theodyssies and Paradoxologies: Collected Poetry. Tacoma, WA: Hierophant Wordsmith Press, 2012.

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