Monday, May 6, 2013

Revisiting my case that the existence of God is infinitely unlikely

"There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."


"Probably no God," but how unlikely is it?

Richard Dawkins, pictured above, is famous for his Spectrum of Theistic Probabilities, a scale from one, absolute belief, to seven, absolute unbelief. He remarks that a six on this scale is identifiable as "De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. 'I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'" Dawkins referred to himself as a 6.9 on this scale. I wanted to explore what "short of zero" means.

In God Doesn't; We Do, I suggest that the existence of God is infinitely unlikely. This is handled by modern mathematical formalism by a term known as "almost surely," which means true off a set of "measure" zero. Measure is a modern mathematical term that generalizes the length of intervals and is the standard accepted basis for analysis (the field in which calculus lives) at present. To avoid a long, detailed, and abstract mathematical discussion, the idea is that places where the claim is false contribute literally no weight, even if they can be said to exist. In other words, the "very low probability" need not actually be "short of zero."

My essential claim in God Doesn't; We Do is that the probability that God exists is zero, almost surely, with the suggestion that Dawkins's position is more accurately 6.999... (which happens to be 7), without any loss of philosophical defensibility on his part to take that stand. Normally, I would say I have to prove such a claim, but the point I want to clarify here is that I don't think I actually do. That, indeed, is the trust of the argument I make in God Doesn't. Technically, I make this argument on a conception of God that does things and don't particularly need to make a case against abstract ideas called "God."

Burden of proof?!

Yes, I know. I accuse theologians of shifting the burden of proof (as an art form that defines their field) all the time, and it looks like that's what I'm doing here. It's not. I'll present an argument here attempting to establish that claim, noting the question-begging fallacy all along. Question begging means assuming the conclusion, for those unfamiliar, and it can be remarkably subtle in occurrence.

So, let's start big and work to small. We should all agree that it is question begging to state a priori that the probability that there is a God (or some specific God) is 100%. If you assume God exists from the outset, you are, by definition, begging the question. So the probability that God exists must be less than 100% to avoid philosophical indefensibility. N.B.: This assumes a position that understands probability as measurement of our state of knowledge. There are others that I am not employing here.

What about 50%? This is what Dawkins calls a four on his spectrum, and it is a state of pure agnosticism, given the nota bene at the end of the previous paragraph. I don't think we can honestly hold this position without begging the question, though, in the same way that I do not think that I can conclude that the fawning eyes of the women in lingerie catalogues have a 50% chance of being indicative of those women being in love with me. It is the case or it isn't, but that need not imply equal likelihood. Unless we start with God, it is very difficult to conclude that anything constitutes evidence for God, and if we look at the hole carved by science in attributional necessity for God, 50% seems a bit steep.

My job here, though, tempting a trap as it might be, is not to make the case that there isn't a 50% chance that God exists. It's to point out that it is the job of the person claiming that there's a 50% chance that God exists to be able to establish that. I don't feel such a number is warranted in any way whatsoever by the evidence of the world, and "it is or it isn't" is a fallacious way to think about the matter. Since "God" is the hypothesis of the theist, though, it is the theist's job to establish that 50% is a reasonable number. What case can be made for this without begging the question?

Fifty percent was the hurdle. The same argument applies going downward, so we can skip quickly to 5%. Is there a compelling argument that the number that describes the likelihood that God exists is at least 5%? My claim is that it is up to the theist to provide such an argument, or that we are not required to accept that claim.

As Dawkins points out with his "very low probability" in his spectrum, we can slide to 1% or 0.1% or 0.00001% on this same construction. Where is the argument saying that God's existence is at least that likely? How low is the "very low probability"? I contend that any positive number that a theist puts out requires defense or begs the question. If I wanted to do this in math-speak, for any small number epsilon greater than zero, assuming that the probability that God exists is epislon begs the question without a proper and solid defense.

But, you can't say that?!

The only defense the theist has at this point is "but you can't say that the probability is zero that God exists without proving it!" Well, two responses are warranted. First, I haven't. I said every positive probability begs the question without an argument to support it. Second, actually, I can say that, so long as I qualify it with "the probability is zero, almost surely, that God exists." Since "almost surely" admits wildly unlikely possibility, it does not run afoul of philosophical defensibility.

So, my claim is that unless a substantial argument can be provided that establishes a nonzero, almost surely, probability for the existence of God, theists beg the question to suggest any positive probability. Some "very low probability" can actually be zero, almost surely, then, and Richard Dawkins can describe himself as a 6.999... on his spectrum. Technically, 6.999... equals 7, but since he defined a seven as "Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one,'" perhaps this justifies the use of the nonstandard form of that number as a rhetorical device.

17 comments:

  1. Theists who cling to an ever-receding probability of god remind me of Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCFB2akLh4s

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  2. I agree with you when you say that the probability of God’s existence is less than 100% because I can’t be absolutely certain of anything other than my own existence. However, when you start placing the probability of God’s existence below 50% your argument falls apart due to the card stacking fallacy. You fail to think about the evidence against your implied claim that the probability that the universe was caused by a purely naturalistic material entity is essentially 100%. You need to realize that this is a very bold claim that needs to be backed up by evidence or solid arguments. What you’re saying is that you’re nearly 100% certain that there is an entity, which is not God, that is pure actuality that actualizes all potential objects in the universe and even the universe itself (assuming that it not pure actuality).

    This is quite an extraordinary claim when we see that everything around us including the universe has both potentiality and actuality. Our actual universe has the potential to be much larger and a darker. We humans go from potential humans to actual humans to potentially dead humans. All potential things depend on some actual thing to actualize them, but this can’t go on forever because there must be something that is pure actuality to actualize all potential things. There must be a prime mover to drive the movement of everything else. When I look out into the physical universe I just don’t see any good candidates for a material object that has pure potentiality. It certainly is not clear that we can be nearly 100% certain that a material object that fits within naturalism is the prime mover. At best we could place the probability of a naturalistic prime mover at 50%, although I think it is much, much lower than that due to the inherent difficulties of a material prime mover.

    When you consider that at best the naturalistic prime mover a 50% possibility of being true with the fact that God’s existence is certainly possible (in all possible universes) then there is at least a 50% chance that God exists, although I think it is much higher than that. To say, as you do, that you are essentially 100% sure that the cause of everything is a material entity that fits within naturalism begs the question against theists. In other words, you're beginning with the assumption that naturalism is true.

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    1. Keith, "there is a magical entity that acts as a prime mover" doesn't get automatic possibility (50%) just because lots of people have thought it. That's a claim for the existence of a thing that has to be substantiated--a claim Mr. Bunny above indicates rightly continues to recede as science progresses in understanding how things are and have come to be. You would have to defend a position of 50% likelihood at this point against the weight of scientific evidence suggesting that no such mover, particularly one with agency, appears necessary.

      My point is that the burden of proof is on the person claiming any positive possibility for a prime mover since there is no actual evidence for such a thing. Otherwise, we could suggest that the universe was created at the very moment Russell's Teapot filled itself with coffee, which was a necessary non-agent act of creation beyond our comprehension and suggest that this possibility also has equal likelihood (dropping creator God to 33.3%, at best, just by my suggestion here). Do note that "creator God" doesn't answer "how" in any respect, so the Teapot full of coffee is equally good an explanation.

      Again you demonstrate your inability to understand logical fallacies or the fact that you repeatedly beg the question because it seems to be to your favor to do so.

      [Pardon the edit: there was an error in what I meant to say in the first sentence that I corrected.]

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    2. You said: “Keith, "there is a magical entity that acts as a prime mover" doesn't get automatic possibility (50%) just because lots of people have thought it.”

      You’re not understanding what I’m saying. There are three possibilities for the object that causes the universe and everything in it to exist and move: 1) It is just potential 2) It is a mix of potential and actual or 3) It is pure actuality. 1) Is incoherent because things that don’t actually exist can’t cause anything. 2) Is highly implausible because it creates an infinite regress of things needing to be actualized by something else. This would be like expecting a watch with an infinite number of springs to drive itself without a motor—if there’s no motor there is no movement. So, it must be 3) a prime mover with pure actuality. It makes sense to say that the prime mover is an un-embodied mind because matter and energy change and need something to actualize their change. The object must be eternal because as I pointed out before, the prime mover must exist uncaused in order to actualize everything else. It makes sense that this object is an agent because agents have intentionality and can decide to do things.

      As I said in my first response, you’re not understanding that when you say that you are essentially 100% certain that God doesn’t exist you’re saying that you are essentially 100% certain that the cause of the universe and everything in it is a material object that fits within naturalism. The burden of proof is now on you to explain what the object, that is pure actuality, is while dealing with the inherent problems of a material prime mover, or if the object is not pure actuality, you must explain how there can be an infinite chain of things that need to be actualized and a working universe such as ours. Like Atlas you are now carrying a massive amount of burden on your shoulders, and given the limited amount of information we have about the universe a charitable estimation of the likelihood of the naturalistic material prime mover is 50%. It most certainly isn’t essentially 100% as you assert. This means that a charitable estimation of the likelihood of God being the prime mover is at 50% as well.

      You said: “Otherwise, we could suggest that the universe was created at the very moment Russell's Teapot filled itself with coffee, which was a necessary non-agent act of creation beyond our comprehension and suggest that this possibility also has equal likelihood (dropping creator God to 33.3%, at best, just by my suggestion here). Do note that "creator God" doesn't answer "how" in any respect, so the Teapot full of coffee is equally good an explanation.”

      This gets me back to the idea of a prime mover. Assuming that a tiny celestial teapot filling with coffee could somehow cause the universe to come into existence what caused the movement of the coffee into the teapot? What actualized the brewed coffee that was placed into the teapot? What actualized the existence of the teapot—who or what formed the clay that made the pot? Who or what actualized the existence of the clay? Who or what actualized the existence of the coffee bean that would be actualized into coffee? I could keep firing these questions off to you, but I’m just going to repeat that we need a prime mover to end this infinite regress. As I said above, God is an excellent candidate for the prime mover. This is why at worst there is a 50% probability that God is the prime mover.

      You said: “Again you demonstrate your inability to understand logical fallacies or the fact that you repeatedly beg the question because it seems to be to your favor to do so.”

      Says the man begging the question by beginning with the assumption that naturalism is true.

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    3. Keith, the pot filled itself with coffee because that was part of its very nature.

      Alternatively, the universe itself could possess consciousness, and when that consciousness arrived at its first thought, the entire cascade of being started to unfold with no agent present, just a non-agent primeval consciousness. Now we're to a prior guess of 25% for an agent prime mover, and I can just keep spinning off possibilities to lower this probability as long as I feel like doing it. This one, you may note, is not made-up. It's Taoism.

      The rest of your tosh isn't worth a response and won't get one.

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    4. You said: “You would have to defend a position of 50% likelihood at this point against the weight of scientific evidence suggesting that no such mover, particularly one with agency, appears necessary.”

      I just recently looked at NYTimes.com and I didn’t see any headlines saying that there was an incredible scientific breakthrough that just happened where a naturalistic explanation of the origin of the universe, life and consciousness was scientifically proven. Perhaps the editors of the Times didn’t think that this was a significant news story so maybe I just missed the news about this breakthrough. Could you point me to this story? I know that there have been many hypotheses trying to explain the origin of the universe, but most of them have failed and, last I saw, none of them have been scientifically proven as true, but as I said maybe I just somehow missed this incredible headline.

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    5. You said: “Alternatively, the universe itself could possess consciousness, and when that consciousness arrived at its first thought, the entire cascade of being started to unfold with no agent present, just a non-agent primeval consciousness. Now we're to a prior guess of 25% for an agent prime mover, and I can just keep spinning off possibilities to lower this probability as long as I feel like doing it.”

      What caused the movement of the universe? It is composed of matter and energy and needs something to actualize their change and movement. If this Taoist explanation is true then why don’t we see this conscious non-living matter forming itself into things like cars? We’ve seen actualized people take matter that is potentially a car and form it into an actual car, but to my knowledge we’ve never seen matter form itself into a car. What is special about the initial state of the universe that it would violate what we know about the world? Face it James, you haven’t done anything to budge God’s 50% chance of being the prime mover.

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    6. Keep talking, Keith. You're making it look like you've got a really firm grasp on my arguments.

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    7. A cautionary tale:

      p1 There are many things that lie upon the surface of the earth unattached;

      p1 If the earth were a spheroid object spinning at approximately 1000 mph at the equator most of those objects would fly off;

      p3 Objects do not fly off in that manner;

      Therefore, the earth is not a spinning spheroid.

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    8. Just because you can formulate an unsound argument it doesn't follow that all arguments are unsound. Creating caricatures of philosophy will not make the argument from first motion go away. It is a serious argument and if you can't or won't deal with it you have nothing of significance to add to this conversation.

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    9. What rational person would think that all arguments are unsound? Or that any argument is sound/unsound just on one's say so? I'm sorry you missed the point. This was a cautionary tale. Out of curiosity why do you think it is a caricature of philosophy?

      What would you think of a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which the magistrates and police department were so enamored of Holmes' reasoning that they ignored routine police investigative methodology like forensics, canvassing, interviews, etc.? Would it be reasonable to hang an accused murderer on the basis of Holmes arguments without corroborative evidence?

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    10. Sorry for the misunderstanding, Ken, I guess I made a quick false assumption about you and your motives.

      Ken, I enjoy reading a good Sherlock Holmes story as much as anyone, but where are you going with this? No one is going to be hanged here, and the argument from first motion is based on reams of experience data. We all know what will happen when you take a watch's motor out--the watch hands stop moving. Adding an infinite number of gears to the motor-less watch will not make the hands move again.

      We also know from massive amounts of experience that things change and that things that change are caused to be changed by something else. The potential Ken Browning was actualized by your parents who were actualized by their parents. From this experience data we can reason that these potential objects being actualized by other objects can't go on forever. There must be a prime mover, that is pure actuality, that actualizes everything else. Do you object to this concept and if you do, do think that the prime mover is something that only has potential or is something with a mix of potential and actuality? If you think that the prime mover has only potential then how can something with no actuality actualize anything? This would be like your non-existent parents giving birth to you--a very crazy idea! If you think that the prime mover is a mix of potential and actuality then how can something that needs to be actualized actualize everything else?

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    11. James said: “Keep talking, Keith. You're making it look like you've got a really firm grasp on my arguments.”

      Is this really all you’re got? You unwittingly assert that you’re essentially 100% certain that the cause of the universe and everything it is a material object that fits within naturalism, with no arguments or evidence and then begin receiving congratulatory high fives from your fellow atheists. One can’t get a good grip on your argument because it’s not there. Where are the arguments or proof that we can say with essentially 100% certainty that the cause of the universe and everything in it is a material object that fits with naturalism? Thus far you have presented none, and since you’re given me no good reasons to think that there is a very high probability that the cause of the universe is a naturalistic one there’s no reason to think that the probability that God exists is essentially zero. You need to give me good sound arguments why the prime mover is a material object that fits within naturalism. You can’t just assert that you’re essentially 100% sure of this naturalistic cause and end it there.

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    12. Keith, it's not all I've got. It's all I'm going to give you. I value my time, and you waste it.

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  3. ...the argument from first motion is based on reams of experience data....

    There's reams of experience data that things fly off spinning objects.

    Murder prosecutions are routinely expected to produce a strong general structure - means, motive and opportunity - but the strength of a case is based on how much evidence is gathered concerning the specific murder suspect under consideration and how that evidence is integrated into the general (deductive) structure.

    Why must one make a decision between metaphysical supernaturalism and metaphysical naturalism when there is a paucity of evidence concerning a prime cause? If modern physics teaches anything it is that reality is very counter-intuitive. You may want to argue that there is, in fact, sufficient evidence for a god personality but that is not the argument you have been making in this thread.

    When someone asks me who or what is the prime mover my response is, 'I don't know'.

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    1. Ken, your comparisons simply don't hold. For your spinning object example to hold we have to see people, cars and other objects change into being actualized by nothing, but that's not what we see. You just didn't pop into existence un-caused, no the potential Ken was actualized into existence by your actual parents. Likewise we don't see baseballs just suddenly fly into the air due to no cause, no they'll just sit there until something like a pitcher causes them to have velocity.

      Secondly, I don't know why you think that this is a murder trial. Our legal system has the beyond reasonable doubt standard of evidence due to the serious nature of sentencing someone possibly to death. We are simply assigning probability between natural or supernatural causes--no one is going to be executed if we assign a 50% probability that God exists and is the prime mover. Assigning the reasonable doubt standard of evidence for all decisions would be overly restrictive--paralyzing almost all our decisions. I think we could even start to doubt whether there is a wold outside our mind because there really is no evidence that there is one.

      Getting back to assigning probabilities, you didn't address my question about the form of the prime mover. I think that we should all be able to agree that the probability that the prime mover is only potential is essentially zero; the idea that something with no actuality actualizing other things is absurd. The probability that it is a mix of potential and actuality is trickier. I don't think we can say it's impossible, but I think we should be able to agree that it's very unlikely as the prime mover would need to be actualized before it can actualize everything else. A 5% to 10% probability seems fair. Now when it comes to a prime mover that is pure actuality I think we could assign a 90% to 95% probability as this is obviously the best candidate.

      Now, is this prime mover, that is pure actuality, something that fits within metaphysical naturalism or not? This is where our limited knowledge about the world and its origins/initial movement clouds things. I think I'm being very generous when I say that the probability that the prime mover is God is 50% because I think that the attributes of God fit much better with a prime mover than they do with a material object, but I can't say that I think that it's essentially 100% because we simply don't have enough information to say that. Given that the probability of God being the prime mover is at least 50% I think that we can safely toss out James' claim that the probability that God exists is essentially zero and his implied assertion that the probability that the prime mover is the material object of metaphysical naturalism is essentially 100%. We simply don't have enough information to assign such an extraordinarily high probability to the material prime mover, especially given the inherent problems associated with such a cause.

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    2. 1. Your argument is a syllogistic/deductive argument that seems to you to be internally consistent. But the strength of a good deductive argument is in the way that the premises are tied to reality and can be shown to be so through inductive evidence. How else can a thought experiment be verified? Here's a classic example:
      All swans are white;
      There are swans in Australia;
      Therefore the swans in Australia are white.
      How do we verify that the swans in Australia are in fact white?

      2. When one can't conceive of a way to explain the existence of "things", one can't simply create a mind category containing a "non-Thing Personality" that is exempt from the ontological problem by declaration. Without evidence all you have is an incoherent (however intuitively enticing) thought experiment based in special pleading.

      Right now, to my knowledge, there is no evidenced explanation of ultimate origins. What I don't know about ontology is what I know.

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