Creation and the Null Hypothesis

The scientific method is an iterative process of testing hypotheses. The default position on a subject is known as the null hypothesis, and new alternative hypotheses are posited and then tested to see if they better fit observations.

For example, it was once generally accepted by scientists and laymen alike that the Earth was flat. An alternative hypothesis was proposed that the Earth was actually [roughly] spherical and, through observation and testing, that alternative hypothesis supplanted the null hypothesis and showed it to be false. That’s how science works. If we had never been able to produce sufficient evidence and observation to falsify the null hypothesis that the Earth was flat, we would still believe it today.

This method has falsified many null hypotheses about our universe, including many that originated in the great world religions and many that just seem to be ‘common sense.’ The Judeo-Christian creation story, for example, has been pretty soundly falsified as a literal account (though that has no bearing on its value as a figurative or allegorical account). The common-sense assumption that time is a fixed constant has also been falsified, as we now understand (per the Theory of General Relativity) that time is relative and is subject to dilation and delay when affected by gravitational fields.

But there is one fundamental question—how was the universe created?—on which there is little or no observable evidence supporting any hypothesis. So on this topic, if we are to apply the scientific method in a proper and consistent way, the null hypothesis stands. Only when an alternative hypothesis is proposed and sufficient evidence and observation serves to falsify the null hypothesis can we ‘switch’ to an alternative.

I would characterize the null hypothesis on creation as this: ‘a deity created the universe.’ This hypothesis doesn’t define who or what that deity is, nor does it posit any particular method by which he/she/it created the universe. There has been no broad consensus on these kinds of details between the world religions (as some atheists gleefully point out). There has, however, been a broad consensus for millennia—even among scientists—that the universe has a creator of some kind. This belief is imprinted on our souls as part of the natural moral law, intuitively understood along with other basic moral truths like ‘murder is wrong’ that stand with or without organized religion. Until very recently, even the ‘liberal’ intelligentsia subscribed to this (e.g. the prevalent deism of the 17th and 18th, centuries, and the later rise of Unitarianism and pantheism, which only very recently gave way to a logically questionable atheism). And despite the impression you may get from the mass media, this consensus endures. About two-thirds of scientists believed in God as of 2005, and that belief is even stronger in the general population.

Scientists should not blindly accept this or any other null hypothesis. The scientific method is all about testing our understanding of the universe, increasing our knowledge, thinking outside of the box, and challenging previously-held dogmas. Through this process we have learned more about our universe than any one man can fully understand, and we have only begun to scratch the surface. But we can’t skip steps. Galileo Galilei couldn’t just declare the sun to be the center of the solar system and have heliocentrism become the accepted standard over geocentrism; no, he had to show evidence that geocentrism was wrong (which, of course, he and those who came after him did). He had to falsify the null hypothesis.

The process of science has changed and broadened our understanding of the mechanisms of creation and the development of life on Earth. ‘Young Earth’ creationism has been thoroughly falsified, along with any literalist reading of the Genesis creation story. We now know that the Earth existed for many eons before anything identifiable as human existed. We know about the dinosaurs. We know about the process of evolution. We know about the expanding universe and the ‘big bang.’ But all we have done is push creation further back in time, and drastically lengthen its processes, from what most of the world religions had been saying. The scientific method has yet to seriously address the fundamental question: what set it all in motion? Nobody has yet falsified the null hypothesis that it was an act of God.

As we look further and further back into our past with ever-more fascinating experiments and observations, peering deep into the recesses of space and creating ‘big-bang’ like conditions in particle accelerators, we have yet to find any plausible alternative hypothesis for where the universe came from . . . let alone one with sufficient supporting evidence to falsify the null hypothesis. Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most preeminent theoretical physicists, has been unable to come up with anything more compelling than ‘spontaneous creation from nothing.’ If you ask me, that’s an embarrassingly weak proposal—especially from such an exceedingly brilliant man (for whom I have very deep respect and admiration).

This points to the untenable position taken by many who sneer at ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ as backwards relics of a bygone age while worshiping instead at the temple of the scientific method: The scientific method says that you can’t discount a hypothesis until you’ve proposed a plausible alternative and supported it with evidence. Oh yes, I’ll laugh right along with you at the ‘Young Earth’ creationists who think the universe is 8,000 years old and that cave-men frolicked with dinosaurs. Their beliefs have been thoroughly debunked time and time again. But the core hypothesis that a deity of some kind created the universe, nitty-gritty details aside, stands as the consensus view about the universe’s origin until falsified and supplanted by a better hypothesis with observable evidence supporting it. Despite a lot of empty blather claiming the contrary, this has not happened yet. I doubt it ever will.

That is why we Christians shouldn’t be afraid of science, at least when it is honestly and ethically practiced by people who don’t let their preexisting religious beliefs (atheism included) color their conclusions. The iterative process of learning, hypothesizing, testing, and analyzing is no threat to our faith because science can never contradict the truth. What science has done, and will continue to do, is give us ever-deeper insight into the way the universe works—helping us to understand God and his creation, not to erase or replace him. As Francis Collins so beautifully put it, science is the language of God. When understood and applied properly, it goes hand-in-hand with faith. Both ultimately lead us to the truth.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.