Saturday, January 30, 2010

Calculating Probabilities

When it comes to religion I tend to use the  'three kinds of people" model. Roughly speaking, you're either a theist, an atheist, or an agnostic. Which of these three is the most defensible position? Which makes the most sense? Which is most consistent with science? What criteria should be used to evaluate your argument for your position on the question of whether there is a god?

I'm not sure that I know the best arguments for each of these three positions, but here's my best shot at evaluating them.

Theists have a problem when it comes to science. They're probably just never going to have anything like scientific evidence for their position. Depending on the particular brand of theism, it may be logically impossible for them to have evidence. For example, one form of theism says that god, being omnipotent and omniscient, can manipulate the universe such that his presence is simply not detectable by scientific means. If you're that kind of theist then it's no surprise to you that science isn't finding god. You're problem, then, is an epistemological one: how do you know that there is a god? Do you have some method for creating knowledge that is different from science? Or do you just choose to believe, even though you don't actually know?

Atheists also have a problem when it comes to science, and for exactly the same reason. The proposition that there is a god who can hide the evidence of his own existence is completely unscientific. It cannot be addressed by science. Atheists will tell you that the claim that there is a god is similar to the claim (without evidence) that there is a teapot in orbit. However, these claims are not similar. The god-claim is an attempted explanation of observed phenomena: there is a universe, there is life, there are sentient beings. The god-claim says these things are here because god made them. The teapot claim has no connection to observed phenomena. Atheists say that we can dismiss the teapot-claim because the probability that it is there is vanishingly small. Without evidence of the teapot, or a reason why it should be in orbit, this is absolutely correct. But we can't make the same argument against the existence of god because, 1) if the god-claim is true then we should expect to find no evidence of god (a weak point, but not able to be defeated), and 2) the god-claim explains things that are currently unexplained, or inadequately explained. Ultimately, the problem with the atheist position is also an epistemological one: how do you know there isn't a god?

Agnostics take the easy way out. They admit that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a god, but also admit that this doesn't mean that there actually isn't a god. As a result, agnosticism embraces a wide spectrum of people from near-believers to near-disbelievers.

So, a question for those of you who are theists: Do you admit that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a god? And if so, what method for creating knowledge have you used to discover that god exists?

A question for atheists: If you reject the proposition that there is a god, not because you can prove there is no god, but because you believe that it is highly improbable that there is a god, then how do you compute the probability that there is a god?

Agnostics get a pass.


  1. Is agnosticism the "Other" category (neither theist nor atheist), or is there the option for more than three categories? I don't particularly want a pass, but I also don't think of myself as agnostic (in any of its flavors).

  2. I don't know many theists who subscribe to the idea that God manipulates the universe such that his presence is not detectable. Why would God want to be undetectable? It seems the only story that would support that view is that God designed the universe as some puzzle/game where we have to discover or trust his existence despite any lack of evidence. I would assign a near-zero probability to that.

    But most religious people I know (Christians) do believe that God makes Himself known through Christ and personal appearances (e.g., Abraham). My main point here is that I think most religious people do not believe God is intentionally undetectable, and that there is at least historical evidence for His existence.

  3. I think Justin described what Christians (or at least me) believe pretty well. The Good News is that God did reveal himself in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Now on to your question:

    Do you admit that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a god?

    I admit that we live in a world with rules (gravity, speed of light, etc), but that God is the source of those rules. So the complexity of the natural world stands as evidence of a creator.

    And if so, what method for creating knowledge have you used to discover that god exists?

    Cells, DNA, the universe itself seem too unlikely for natural selection. We are not lucky mud. We have a purpose.

    However the main evidence I have for God is the real impact I have witnessed in my and my loved ones lives. But not just the women who visits hardened criminals or the man who charges into a burning building. It is the slow change over time that Jesus seems to make have on people.

  4. Bob, I'm certainly open to hearing a description of another category.

    Justin, I know a lot of Christians who essentialy expect to NOT find god evidenced in the physical world. I think this is simply a strategy for maintaining faith in a society that doesn't leave much space for faith. But, as you point out, there are also those believers who EXPECT evidence of god to be found in the physical world. I find their position difficult to understand (at least so far as truly scientific evidence goes), so I guess that's why I gave them short shrift here. You say that there is a near-zero probability that there is a god who has designed the universe to be a sort of puzzle or deception. How can you know the probability of such a claim?

    Harrison, I want you to know that I am sympathetic to your viewpoint and to your faith. But you can see how, to disbelievers, there is doubt about the connection between life and god. I know that you don't doubt the connection, but it is something that can be doubted. It's at least possible that there are non-divine explantions for life, for the universe, for effects in people's lives etc. But don't misunderstand - my point is that this doubt cuts both ways. No matter how complete or exact the scientific description of life and the universe becomes, there will still be, to my mind, room for divinity.

    Also, I want to clarify my use of lower case g in spelling god. This is not intended as disrespect. In fact, it's intended as respect. It's meant to recognize that there are many different conceptions of the divine. I'm trying to make it clear that I am not only talking about the Christian God.

  5. I'm worried about joining this discussion, but here goes:

    Do you admit that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a god?

    Yes, and I believe it's intentional. Faith would be meaningless if we had solid, substantial, scientific proof. The science would supplant faith, and it (faith) would be empty. We would not have to search for it, to work for it, because it would be something entirely different in character, something that is not spirituality.

    And if so, what method for creating knowledge have you used to discover that god exists?

    *sigh* You're not going to be satisfied with my answer. The method is prayer, and less the act of praying, than the fact that my prayers tend to get answered. I'm not talking about "I prayed that it would snow and it DID!" sorts of answers; I mean, real questions, answered in my mind from a source beyond me, revealing subtle truths I could not have figured out for myself. There is my proof. It isn't the kind of thing one person can pass along to another, because all people need to gain it from the same place, from the source.

    You can't use science to evaluate religious things, and I believe the reverse is true too. You need to use the methods of each practice to figure it out on its own terms. You'll find God through science as easily as you'll understand physics through prayer.

    Can of worms, honey. Cripes.

  6. Nicely done, Jenn. I don't think there's much that can really go wrong by sharing your perspective. Thank you. And thank you, Robert, for opening the can of worms.

  7. Okay, joining in now... What if one's definition of "god" is essentially that which evokes in us feelings of wonder, awe, love, mystery, and all the rest, but that defies rational explanation or even description? I don't believe that god is a being or a creator. I don't believe that such a being is either necessary or evident (even from the feelings I have).

    By this definition, I don't think I'm a theist or an atheist. To me, "god" is a conceptual label that I place rather subjectively on my experience and understanding of my world and (more importantly) of myself. As such, it will vary between individuals (as we see that it does), and it will evolve over a person's lifetime (as we see that it does).

    As agnosticism goes, the various flavors all seem to have to do with the (un)knowability of the existence of "god." If one's definition of god doesn't align with that of theists and atheists, then s/he isn't really addressing the knowability of their gods' existence.

    Additionally, in more of a Buddhist/Taoist sort of way, I don't really understand the relevance of the question of whether god exists in this particular form. What if he/she/it did? What difference would it make? If we could definitively prove it one way or the other, would we then live our lives in some particular way? If so, then why would we not just make the choice to live in that way now? To me, the real question is, "How will you live your life?" The answer to that question is personal and individual and (I think) influenced little if at all by the answer to this academic question.

    All of which brings me back to where I begin. The real question has to do with what's inside of us - who we are, what we feel, what moves us, what drives us. This is what we need to study and try to understand and grow and nurture. That is (to me) what I would call "god," and it lives in each of us. From this comes compassion toward self and others and the answers to the questions about how to live one's life.

  8. First -- I really like Jenn's answer, and my thoughts echo some of hers, but perhaps from a different perspective.

    Second -- I think that science is a religion, and should not be used to evaluate religious truth any more than two religions should be used to evaluate each other. In all cases, they pursue truth and outline how we come to know truth.

    The unique perspective of science is the claim that truth can be observed by our five senses. (Science and religion also claim that we accept as truth something that can be observed repeatedly and agreed upon my multiple people.) I know the LDS faith best -- we claim that truth can be identified as described in Alma 32 (, and that this process will be similar for everyone.

    As for science, I am devout, and devout in my religion as well. But I don't accept science as a reliable way to evaluate ALL truth. The five senses are easily deceived, so easily I'm sometimes terrified by it. Also, the five senses are extremely limited in what they can detect! Light for example. Our eyes detect the tiniest portion of the EM spectrum; instruments detect more. But even with the best instrumentation our observations are incredibly limited.

    You ask whether there is scientific evidence for God. I... hm, help me with this, because I don't have a lot of time and haven't thought about it before. Isn't science based on finding evidence for/against falsifiable hypotheses? Therefore, science is limited by the questions it can pursue and answer. In order to ask whether there is a God, science has to be able to show that there is NOT a God, again, using the 5 sense assumptions for finding truth and patterns in the world. I think it's not possible to conclusively show that there is no God, therefore this question is, at heart, outside the realm of science. That doesn't mean God isn't real, it just means that the scientific methods of finding and asserting truth are not capable of addressing the question.

    So, I conclude, thank goodness for religion :). It is another way to search for truth using other, internal sense. Also, I LOVE how if truth is absolute, than all methods of pursuing truth are valid, and ultimately all truth will fit together.

  9. Bob, correct me if I'm wrong but it seems to me that on the question of whether there is a being who created the universe, you pretty much come in on the "no" or "not likely" end of things. Is that right? I understand that you're saying that whether there is such a being is not even the right question to ask, BUT a lot of people DO ask that question.

    However I agree with you that the look inward is more likely to reveal the thing that people are seeking than is the look outward. I hear Sarah, Jenn, and Harrison all saying something very similar. There is an internal experience of divinity.

  10. Jenn, you have experiences that I don't. On the other hand, I have felt before that my mind was touched and understanding was added. Was it my imagination? Maybe, I don't know. I'm reluctant to give myself to much credit.

  11. Sarah, my views are extremely like yours. I think that you are exactly right that the question of whether there is a god lies wholly outside of science (non-falsifiable claim). I also think you are exactly right that there are things that are REAL that lie outside of science. The internal experience can't be used for communal science because you can't share your internal experience with the community. No one else can know what your internal experience is, or whether you are interpreting it correctly. Science is limited to external experiences because we can share them (and agree on whether they happened). But the internal experience is real as well.

    A lot of people would argue against that statement that the internal experience is real. They'd say it's just neurons firing, or whatever. But those same people have no problem trusting their own ability to think and reason, or to perceive with their five senses. Isn't that all just neurons and chemical signals and stuff too?

    I agree. Thank goodness for religion.

  12. Hey, Robert. I guess if I'm restricted to the question of "What is the probability that there is a supreme being who created the universe?" I'm going to have to say "not likely," not because I think there's evidence to the contrary but because I see zero necessity for it, and so I can't say that it "ought" to be there. And it just feels like such a weird question to ask. For me it's akin to the old psychological theory that there's a(n) homunculus inside us that governs our behavior. My emotional response is an immediate, "Huh? Why?" It's not even that I think it's unlikely as much as I can't figure out why one would suppose such a thing.

    For what it's worth, I leave space for the possibility that I'm completely off-base, and there's a creator watching me and shaking her head in dismay. Even so, it seems to me that by attending to and following my personal values I am leading a more compassionate and caring life than what I'm seeing in a huge majority of those around me who profess a belief in a creator. It's hard for me to see how there's an advantage to that belief.

    Interestingly, on your last point, I come down very strongly (as I think you know) on the side that "the internal experience" is literally all we have. Our experience of "the external" is through our senses, our minds, our emotions, our conditioning and the rest. What we are experiencing is ourselves experiencing the Universe. We and "the external" are in many ways indistinguishable (if indeed there is a distinction).

    While I agree with Sarah that there are those who "believe" in science with a fervor appropriate to a religion, I cannot agree that science itself is a religion. The whole purpose of the scientific method is the objective examination and exposition of what is known and what is not known. To do otherwise and call it "science" is to misrepresent science. Having lived in that world, I'm well aware that there are people who abuse their scientific credentials to promote what are really their values.

    I have no qualms with religion. If it comforts people and enriches their lives (which I absolutely think it can), then I'm all for it. I just like to do my best to be clear in my own mind and in my communication with others about what I know, what I don't know, what I value, what I feel, what I'd like to think might be true, and the assumptions and guesses that I choose to make in the absense of real evidence.