Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is God’s Existence Improbable?
Does Probability Matter?

Shane Hayes

In our talks about the existence of God my atheist friends nearly always say something to this effect: “My feelings have nothing to do with this. Yours clearly do, and you admit it. But mine don’t. I just weigh the evidence and seek the truth.”

Among several important things I can’t prove but am convinced of is this: In deciding whether or not to believe in God, no one, on either side of the issue, is completely objective. Nor should one be, since the arguments are weighty on both sides, and neither proves its case. Evidence and logic leave us dangling. In forming an opinion on what is unknowable, personal considerations become relevant, even determinative.

Where evidence is overwhelming we should sweep our feelings aside. For example: The proposition that all men are mortal and doomed to die is unpleasant to contemplate. When we look at a mortally ill person, ravaged by disease, or a desiccated body at a viewing, the thought that their fate will inevitably be ours is grim and morbid. Yet every rational person disregards his emotional preferences and believes that gruesome truth. A mountain of historical evidence, actuaries, the obituary pages, and our own observation, all confirm that death is the terminus of every human life.

But does human consciousness survive death, and if so in what form? Now, there is a question for which we have almost no observable evidence. True, the lifeless body shows no signs of consciousness and never will again. Neural science has discovered much about the connection between awareness, perception, reasoning, and various parts of the brain. Does the fact of those connections during life prove that consciousness apart from them is impossible after death?

Is our knowledge of All That Is so complete that there can be no dimension of it in which human consciousness exists unmoored to a body? Might that possibility depend on whether the material universe (whose existence science can’t explain) had a nonphysical cause -- an omnipotent mind outside the world, who created it? If an infinite intelligence is the uncreated source and inventor of matter, himself independent of it, might he not want his human creatures to exist independent of it too, when their mortal moral life has ended?

When Evidence Is Fragmentary

Here we move into a realm in which evidence is absent, ambiguous, or inconclusive, so answers must be conjectural -- a combination of guesswork and surmise. Rationality cites facts and makes arguments but admits in the end: I can’t be sure. Some shrug and leave it at that, taking no position, forming no opinion. But to move from indecision to belief in either direction, as most of us do, we must either flip a coin or weigh factors that are not purely rational. Though we hate to admit it, our feelings come into play – and they should.

“Not so,” my atheist friend insists. “I base my conclusion on assessing the probabilities. That’s a quantitative judgment which has nothing to do with emotion. God’s existence is so extremely improbable that atheism is the only rational choice.”

But how improbable is the alternative to God? Science admits it doesn’t know how life began. The odds against spontaneous generation of life, by random events, are staggering. Not only must non-living chemical matter come alive, it must just happen to contain the kind of DNA or RNA necessary to reproduce itself genetically. Otherwise the extraordinary phenomenon would die with no offspring, no consequence. So two virtual miracles must occur at once!

All efforts to create the most rudimentary forms of life in a lab, under ideal conditions, beginning with Miller and Urey in 1953, have failed. Bill Bryson in his wide-ranging survey of scientific developments (“A Short History of Nearly Everything”) says this:

“Despite a half century of further study, we are no nearer to synthesizing life today than we were in 1953 and much further away from thinking we can…. The problem is proteins….. By all the laws of probability proteins shouldn’t exist…. To make [the protein] collagen you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence. But… you don’t make it. It makes itself spontaneously, without direction, and this is where the unlikelihood comes in. The chances of a 1,055 sequence molecule like collagen spontaneously self-assembling are, frankly, nil. It just isn’t going to happen.”

Monkeying Around with the Odds

A contrary view is expressed by atheist Richard Dawkins, who argues that because there are a billion billion planets in the universe, a billion-to-one shot – like dead chemicals springing to life -- becomes a sure thing. The same kind of mathematical prestidigitation has produced “the infinite monkey theorem,” which Wikipedia describes thus: “A hypothetical chimpanzee… hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.” With this kind of mathematical wizardry to light our path, who needs faith? Or common sense?

So my friend, the coolly rational atheist (a brilliant guy, by the way), has no problem believing that spontaneous generation of life took place, despite a level of improbability that can hardly be quantified. He puts faith in mathematical theories that are prima facie farfetched, and in no way explain how dead matter not only comes to life but does so with reproductive capacity and eventually, with no outside help, evolves the still more dazzling prodigy of consciousness. Yet he can’t believe in God because his existence is “too improbable.”


The probability of God’s existence is a legitimate question, which the uncertain must grapple with, and which will be a factor in reaching their conclusion. I would argue:

(1) In this context, probability is too nebulous to assign a percentage or a ratio to.

(2) Just as with God’s existence itself, reasonable minds may differ on whether the greater probability is that he exists or that he does not. Both sides see the scales as tipping in their favor. And,

(3) One’s feelings (preferences) enter into a probability assessment, just as inevitably as they do into the final decision about whether God exists. And that’s fine, if we overcome our denial and admit it, at least to ourselves.

In pondering the probability issue in my essay “An Agnostic Argues for Faith” (posted below on this home page) I asked myself these two questions:

Did the Big Bang ultimately produce Plato, or did a cause more like Plato produce him? Did cosmic dust evolve into a great mind, or did a Great Mind produce the cosmos?

Viewed in that light, I think the case for God is stronger than the case against. But even if you think the case against is formidable, and God quite improbable, a small ray of rational hope that he exists is enough to make belief a legitimate choice. What seems unlikely, even extremely unlikely, often proves to be true. Here is where human considerations – like the benefits of belief versus the detriments of unbelief – can reasonably and prudently be taken into account.


  1. You're saying that there's a scientific problem X (X=abiogenesis) that science currently doesn't have a clear answer for, so its reasonable to say that X is explained by a supernatural entity Y (Y=God). The problem I have with this "God of the Gaps" argument is that I don't see how one can get from "X is unexplained" to anywhere. What are the limits of this argument? Is it reasonable to posit God as an explanation for other scientific problems that we don't currently have clear answer for - e.g. the cause of high temperature superconductivity, or the rotation curves of galaxies? For that matter, if this is an acceptable argument, why can't we use it to argue for any supernatural entity Y we want: X = high temperature superconductivity is caused by Y = leprechauns. I realize that this sounds silly, and as if I was making fun of you, but that's not my intent - I would argue that the internal logic of the arguments is the same, and thus equally valid or invalid in the two cases, and that the only difference is that our culture has a commonly held story about a God who creates life, and not one about leprechauns who cause superconductivity. Why is this argument valid for X = abiogenesis, and Y = God, but not in the other cases?

    As for life after death, I wouldn't say that there's evidence against it, or that I have any meaningful way of assessing the probability of life after death. I would just say that generally before one believes in statement Z, we require more than a statement that no one has shown Z to be impossible - we generally require positive evidence for Z.

  2. Tom Hanks had a great line in Angels & Demons. He said something like "My intellect is not capable of understanding what God is." My sentiments exactly. We can't know what God is, so ascribing attributes to him/her/it is an exercise in futility.

  3. Autumnal,
    Since I've gone from Christianity to agnostic, I have tried to see if I should go one more step towards atheism. I have read books on evolution and I can understand how changes could come about over a long period of time by natural selection, but I still cannot get my mind around how something as complex an an animal that appears to require simultaneously respiration, circulation, digestion, a flap to prevent food going into lungs, elimination and reproduction can have come about by chance without a creator. The probability against this seems overwhelming. You suggest that we could say that Leprechauns cause super conductivity, but you could go one step further and say that a creator set up the laws of nature, etc. But, then again, these laws could just simply be a natural result of creation.

  4. Elek,
    A friend of mine has suggested that, since there is no way of knowing if there is a creator or not and if this creator wants anything since he obviously has not made this clear, there is no point concerning ourselves about it. Just simply live our lives as best we can and, if there is a continuation of consciousness when we die, we will know then.