First, what is a hypothesis? Wuellner’s Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy provides a useful first approximation:
hypothesis, n. a conditional or provisional explanation of observed facts or of their connection with each other; a tentative explanation suggestive of further experiment and verification.
“Conditional,” “provisional,” and “tentative” are crucial terms here, but I hasten to emphasize that I am not objecting to someone’s taking a conditional, provisional, or tentative attitude as such. Suppose, for example, that someone said that he was contemplating Aquinas’s First Way or Leibniz’s cosmological argument, and so far was willing to accept them provisionally or tentatively but was not certain that they were successful proofs. Am I claiming that such a person must be guilty of a misunderstanding of the nature of God or his relationship to the world? Not at all, even though both those arguments happen to be successful demonstrations of God’s existence. Again, it is not tentativeness as such that I am objecting to.
The problem is with the specific way that a hypothesis is provisional or tentative, and that way is indicated by Wuellner’s reference to the need for “further experiment and verification.” But it is brought out better by another definition of our term, this time from John Carlson’s Words of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition:
hypothesis (n.): As used in the natural sciences, a predictive judgment about an empirical event that will occur under a describable set of conditions. (Hypotheses are sometimes generated by more general theories; if the predicted events in fact occur, the hypotheses are said to be confirmed, and this in turn provides additional rational support for the theories in question.) Also: “hypothetical” (adj.), “hypothetically” (adv.).
Now, I am citing works in the Scholastic tradition to reflect the point of view from which I approach these matters, but on this particular issue I don’t think Wuellner’s and Carlson’s account differs in any relevant way from what your average non-Scholastic philosopher or scientist would say. The idea is, first, that a hypothesis is a tentative explanation of some empirical event that will occur under certain conditions. Hence, suppose some effect E occurs under certain conditions of type T. We might hypothesize that a cause of type C is responsible, and then go on to test this by bringing about an instance of C under conditions of type T and seeing whether an instance of E follows. If it does not, we might form some new hypothesis, to the effect that it is another sort of cause (of type D, say) that is responsible. But even if our prediction is confirmed, it is possible in principle that it is nevertheless not really C that is producing E, but some other causal factor that is merely correlated with C. So we’d need to do further testing to rule that possibility out. And in any event, if there really is some causal connection between C and E, only such empirical investigation is going to reveal it, because the causal relationship between them, even if real, is going to be contingent. Again, it will be possible that something other than C is the cause, so that the most that further testing can do is render this supposition improbable (even if, perhaps, highly improbable).
Now, this sort of relationship between C and E is simply not like the relationship between God and the world as that is understood by classical theism. God’s creating the world is not a matter of making it the case that this specific thing happens in the world rather than that specific thing. Rather, creation is a matter of making it the case that there is any world at all. Moreover, theism holds that the fact that there is any world at all is something that could not even in principle have obtained in the absence of divine creative action. For classical theism, if we’re talking about a view according to which the world might have existed apart from God, but simply happens not to do so, then we’re not really talking about theism but rather about something that only superficially resembles it.
Of course, the atheist will deny that the world has this character, and I’m not denying for a moment that showing that the atheist is wrong about that requires argumentation. The point is that the kind of argumentation involved will not be a matter of forming empirical hypotheses and then testing them (using Mill’s Methods, or appealing to probability theory, or whatever). That’s just a category mistake. It is instead going to involve metaphysical reasoning that begins with much deeper facts about the world – for example, the fact that the things that make it up are compounds of essence and existence or of actuality and potentiality – and arguing that nothing that is like that could exist even for an instant without a sustaining cause that is not composite in such ways. (Longtime readers will understand what I am talking about, but for the uninitiated, these are examples of concepts appealed to in Thomistic and Aristotelian arguments for God’s existence, which .)
Certainly it would be absurd to suppose that such reasoning is like the hypothesis formation and testing familiar from natural science. For example, it would be absurd to suggest that something whose essence and existence are distinct might in principle be sustained in being by something other than ipsum esse subsistens, and that we need to come up with some empirical test to show that this is unlikely. That would be as absurd as, say, a Platonist arguing that something other than the Form of the Good might in principle be responsible for things having whatever measure of goodness they have, but that this is improbable given the empirical evidence. Or it is as absurd as a mathematician proposing that there is solid confirming empirical evidence that makes it probable that 12 x 48 = 576. The point isn’t that we don’t need to provide an argument for the claim that 12 x 48 = 576, or for the claim that there is such a thing as the Form of the Good, or, again, for the claim that the world could not exist even in principle apart from God. The point, again, is that the kind of argumentation we would have to give would not involve forming hypotheses and then coming up with ways to test them empirically. That simply would not reflect the nature of mathematical facts, or the nature of the Form of the Good (if such a thing exists) and its relation to particular instances of goodness, or the nature of God and his relationship to the world.
Of course, someone might claim that there are no good arguments other than those that involve empirical hypothesis formation and testing. (Good luck making sense of mathematics on that supposition.) But whether that really is the case is precisely part of what is in dispute between classical theism and atheism of the kind inspired by scientism. Hence, without an independent argument establishing that such arguments are the only respectable ones, such an objection would simply beg the question.
Now, someone might also object that an argument need not get you all the way to God to get you part of the way. And that is perfectly true. Suppose, for example, that some version of the argument from contingency (such as those defended by Avicenna, Aquinas, and Leibniz) really does demonstrate the existence of an absolutely necessary being. That would certainly do much to establish classical theism, even if one did not go on to show that this necessary being had further divine attributes such as omnipotence and omniscience. For necessity itself is one of the divine attributes, which radically differentiates God from everything else, so that to establish that something exists of necessity is a crucial step on the way to a complete argument for theism.
Could it be said, then, that even if arguing via empirical hypothesis formation and testing does not get us all the way to God, it can still be useful in getting us part of the way? Well, to be fair, I’d be happy to consider a specific purported example to see exactly what such an objector has in mind. But if the reasoning involved is like that described above, then I would answer in the negative.
Suppose I kept finding leaves in my yard near a certain tree, and hypothesized that my neighbor was intentionally dumping them there. Suppose you pointed out that the number and arrangement of the leaves is perfectly consistent with their having fallen there from the tree as a result of the wind, or because squirrels or other animals are knocking them off the branches. Suppose I responded: “Sure, my argument doesn’t go all the way to establishing that my neighbor is responsible, but the evidence gets me at least part of the way there.” You would no doubt be unimpressed. Sure, my neighbor could have put the leaves there, but there is simply nothing in the evidence that requires such a distinctively human cause (as opposed to an inanimate cause like the wind, or a non-human animal). So the support the presence of the leaves gives my hypothesis is negligible at best.
Similarly, hypothesis formation and testing like the kind described above, whatever else might be said for it, simply doesn’t deal with phenomena that require positing a divine cause, specifically. And the reason, again, is that such hypothesizing deals only with questions about why some natural phenomenon is this way, specifically, rather than that way, whereas divine creative activity has to do with why such phenomena exist at all; and that it posits causes which merely could be, but need not be, responsible.
The point I am making is essentially the same as the one Kant famously made when he argued that what he called “physico-theological” arguments (an example of which would be Paley’s design argument) cannot in the nature of the case get us to God, but only to a kind of architect of the world. The reason is that they explain at most why the world is arranged in a certain way, but not why it exists at all, and thus do nothing to establish causality of the strictly creative kind that is distinctive of God.
That is by no means to deny that such arguments might pose serious challenges to certain purported materialist or naturalistic explanations of this or that phenomenon. But to undermine some particular naturalistic explanation, however important, is not the same thing as establishing theism. The relationship between the two sets of issues is more complicated than that.