The Probability of God

In Richard Dawkins‘s new book “The God Delusion” (I’ve just finished reading it – review coming soon), he argues that Agnosticism is an irrational position, because it basically has to maintain that the probabilities for the existance and non-existance of some god are (at least roughly) equal. Dawkins argues that they are not. This has prompted many agnostics to come out and defend their positions.

One of them is John Wilkins, who argues quite well that one cannot set up probabilities in the first place:

The philosophical agnosticism I adhere to does not say anything about probabilities at all. It says, instead, that nothing can count for or against either position decisively. Probabilities are based in this case on prior assumptions – one uses Bayes’ theorem to determine whether or not the hypothesis under test is likely to be true, given other assumptions we already accept. And here is where the problem lies – which assumptions? To adopt and restrict one’s priors to scientific assumptions is question begging. You in effect eliminate any other conceptual presuppositions from being in the game. This has a name in philosophy – positivism. It is the (empirically unsupportable) claim that only scientific arguments can be applied. As Popper noted, this is self-refuting. You cannot prove the basic premise of your argument that only provable (or, let’s be generous, supportable) claims should be accepted. As this is not a supportable claim in itself, you have contradicted your own position.

I’m not sure that it’s impossible to set up probabilities of any kind. For example, consider the following hypotheses:

  • H_0: Our universe, U_0, has no creator
  • H_1: Our universe, U_0 has exactly one creator. She lives in another universe, U_1 and runs U_0 as a computer simulation. U_1 has no creator.
  • H_2: Our universe, U_0 has exactly one creator, living in U_1 and running U_0 as a computer simulation. U_1 has exactly one creator, living in U_2, running U_1 as a computer simulation. U_2 has no creator.
  • … and so on until:
  • H_inf: There is a (countable) infinity of universes U_0, U_1, U_2, … Our universe is U_0. For each universe U_i the following holds: U_i has exactly one creator, living in U_i+1 and running U_i as a computer simulation.

All of these are possible hypotheses about the creation of our universe, but since we have no empirical data nor any viable assumptions outside our own universe on any of them, Wilkes holds that we must be agnostic about all of them, unable to pronounce one more likely than the other. But can we really not say that H_32589 is less likely than H_1?

As I said, I’m not sure. Even if we could, the general question of whether there is any god (for my purposes defined as creator of our universe, whether omnipotent or not) is an infinitely more complicated one and I tend to agree with Wilkes that from our point of view it’s impermissible to reason about probabilities for or against it.

Given the last point, I should call myself an agnostic in Wilkes’s sense. Still, I much prefer to call myself an atheist, because I firmly reject the gods postulated by popular religions – gods not content with merely creating but gods performing miracles, listening to and answering prayers, and caring about us (often with the provision that we believe in them) and our (non-existing) souls. But also because it pisses some people off more ;-)

14 thoughts on “The Probability of God

  1. I’ll give this the comment I accedentally left in some other page…

    the title alone confuses me
    “Juggling, Photography, Software, and Atheism”
    how would being Atheist be something to juggle? It seems like having religion is the more stressfull route.

    I’m not Atheist, but I am very Agnostic… and they seem kind of related to me…. their at least closer to each other than religious people

    maybe I’m missing something

    I call myself agnostic because I don’t like pre-set religions… I like to pick and choose what I want to believe

    I hate super religious people because they seem to be blindly following a set of rules that they don’t even fully understand

    If you have ever seen the movie “Dogma” you will have heard that no one religion is completely correct
    If you haven’t seen that movie, you need to… unless you have no sence of humor, then you should just go kill yourself

    just so you know your getting the correct movie…
    the movie was directed my Kevin Smith, and it has “Jay and Silent Bob” in it

    I have a blog on religion here…
    the title is “My Philosophy on Religion”

  2. > maybe I’m missing something

    I have already answered this, but here I go again: Yes, you’re missing something, namely the comma after “Juggling”.

    > I like to pick and choose what I want to believe

    I don’t choose what I want to believe. I believe what the evidence leads me to. Even if I’d like to believe in fairies I can’t because the evidence just isn’t there. Likewise with god.

    > If you have ever seen the movie “Dogma” you will have heard
    > that no one religion is completely correct

    I’ve seen it, but I knew that before already. Also, atheism isn’t a religion. A much quoted comparison says that calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.

  3. Which is your explanation regarding the existence of physics rules( atomic, thermodynamic, …) ? It’s quite easy to create ( and maintain) a system which operates constantly according to a set of rules ?

    By the way, did you know that even Einsten and Fermi belived in God ?

  4. > Which is your explanation regarding the existence of physics
    > rules( atomic, thermodynamic, …) ?

    I have none. That does not count as an argument for the existence of a god, however, because it, too, requires an explanation. If your explanation for the existance of God is that God just exists then I can say the same for the physical laws, i.e., the universe.

    > By the way, did you know that even Einsten and Fermi belived in
    > God ?

    First of all, it does not matter what Einstein and Fermi believed. Second, Einstein did not believe in a personal god that takes interest or meddles in the affairs of humans. I don’t know what Fermi believed. Can you give a source?

  5. Oh, man this was *funny*!
    Being religious in a hopefully “serious” and “conscious” way, of course I know the difference between agnostic and atheist. But this thing about the probability of the nth level of nesting of virtual worlds with eventually a god on top of them all is a real jewel :-)
    I never heard of that reasoning before!

    IMHO, religion is not a “mind” thing, not in the usual sense at least.

    Do you “believe” you’ve got two hands?
    Do you “believe” there’s New Zealand at the other end of the globe, maybe even if you have never been there?

    Again, IMHO religious faith is just the same: you have some evidence, some clues, but you cannot demonstrate rationally to somebody else that you *really* have two hands.
    Let alone the existence of New Zealand!
    Either he already knows, or he really trusts you (he has faith!), or there’s no way you’ll have success to convert somebody to the truth that you have two hands.
    In the same way, I just cannot convince anybody else that I can have life independently of my body (think soul here), or that God exists: it would be pointless.

    In fact, one of the things I dislike the most of current and past organized religions is when they try to “force” you to believe something, which makes no sense, and is totally counterproductive.
    And I really appreciate agnostics when they honestly say “I just don’t know”: they are true

    I want to leave just a hint in this comment: do you think you will ever need a reasoning like the one in your post (about proBeato Massimiliano (Maksymilian) Binkiewicz Sacerdote e martire 24 agostobabilities) to reach the conclusion that you have two hands?
    So, the hint is: don’t try to use reasoning like that to reach conclusions about souls and Gods: it’s pointless!
    Even if it can be really, really funny :-)

    Massi (your new colleague!)

  6. Oh, well, it seems I cannot check when to push a submit button and where I paste my buffers!

    The last sentences had to read “they are true to themselves and to everybody else.” and “…in your post (about probabilities) to reach…” :-)

    Ciao, and sorry for the spam

  7. Excuse me? I KNOW that I have two hands. How? Well I can see and feel them, use them effectively and quite frequently wish I had a third. I have two hands, which is a fact that can be verified in a multitude of ways unless you’re unsure about the concept represented by the number 2. But that’s a whole different story.

    The same goes for New Zealand. Indeed, I have never been there and it’s quite unlikely that I’ll ever go there at all. However I’m quite convinced by the HUGE amount of evidence that supports the hypothesis of New Zealand really being there. I have friends who were there and showed me photographic evidence. This of course does require faith in my friends, and in the way the photographic develpment process works. However since literally millions of people have had similar vacations to New Zealand, all corroborating this with tangible evidence, the amount of faith required in my single friend diminishes incredibly. Not to mention the fact that some portion of the world’s population actively claims to actually live in New Zealand. I consider the existence of New Zealand sufficiently proven.

    The reason why I personally would label myself an atheist is indeed based in probability. The odds are stacking up overwhelmingly against the God of Abraham as well as against the inhabitants of mt. Olympos. Time and time again natural phenomena that used to be inexplicable, such as lightning, have been found to follow a simple set of rules. As science progressed through the ages ever more gods were dethroned and revealed to be more or less simple mechanical processes bound by verifiable constants and rules.

    Of course science has not yet figured it all out. Abiogenesis really has the scientific community stumped at the moment. However judging by the historical track record of the scientific method, I consider it quite likely that abiogenesis will also be explained by nature’s rules.

    This statement does not require a large leap of faith because my hypothesis, that science will explain abiogenesis at some point as a natural process, is much more likely than ‘God did it’.

    And that is so because ‘God did it’ has been debunked over and over again by science, and replaced with ‘it’s a chemical/mechanical process that works in this or that way and we can even reproduce it in a lab!’ On the other hand I would be absolutely thrilled to see any kind of solid evidence that would prove the existence of a god. I haven’t seen any.. do you know of any? It’s simply not there as far as I can tell.

    Science doesn’t have all the answers yet, but its diligently and accurately followed methods instill much more confidence in me than any kind of scripture which just says ‘God did it, believe me!’ in a very convoluted way.

    So in short I do consider God extremely unlikely and I’m willing to venture the assumption that God simply isn’t there, and that’s not even mentioning the HUGE amount of unneeded complexity any kind of god would add to the universe. That’s why I consider myself an atheist.

  8. To me the Big Bang theory of universe formation doesnt make much sense. It is just a concept. All Concepts in science are very similar, they just provide proof stating one or more assumptions and other concepts. The other concepts too use many such assumptions. The assumptions being unproven. So when people say they believe in only evidence it just doesnt make sense. What I can really believe is different camps justifying themselves in ways that the other camp wont come in term with. In short Science and God both are just concepts , niether of which can be proved true or false completely. However , it does not mean that both concepts contradict too.
    Science takes into account the truth as what researchers and scientists accept with certain assumptions.
    Relegion takes into account the truth things from history, the experience and research gained by people believing in God and how they try to seek the meaning of life or relegion.

    In fact both the believers and the atheists only believe in assumptions but the concept of belief is justified differently in different camps.

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