I have been turning over a way of talking about how likely is it that a god of any sort, from the various Christian conceptions, to Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, Polynesian, and many more, including the deistic god, actually exists. Is there a way to effectively talk about all of them?
Considering the amazing diversity of what the god concept is in the real world, that is tough. Even if it is possible to disprove the philosopher’s god that is omni-benevolent, powerful, and knowledgeable, that doesn’t disprove gods that are not so nice, not infinitely powerful, or happen to not know certain things. There are god concepts that do not include such infinities. The Bible certainly doesn’t see all gods as equally powerful.
On the other hand, an agnostic can say that we can’t know a god of some sort doesn’t exist, and that can be either a prelude to saying why they are not an atheist (though they aren’t mutually exclusive concepts) or why they avoid the topic. If you can’t prove it either way, why bother? Perhaps the problem here is what is meant by “knowledge”. If by that you mean 100% certainty, then you have to be agnostic about many things you would normally claim you know, such as the general shape of the earth (all the evidence indicates it’s round, but it could be a conspiracy or illusion, so it’s not 100%), who your parents are, or even the existence of other minds than your own. On the other hand, if you mean that knowledge is just having a high probability, say greater than 99%, then we are talking about evidence and potentially the question could be decided either way.
There are some things we can’t know ahead of time with anything we would call knowledge. For example, I cannot predict ahead of time the side a fair coin will have land up, even if I guess correctly; the chances are 50/50 (or very close). But is the probability of a god of any sort really 50/50?
To analyse this, I want to try a little statistical reasoning and establish a prior probability on gods. Note that this is not the final probability, which can be adjusted with evidence in favor or against the hypothesis. Moreover, this god concept will be the most general form possible so it can encompass all the god concepts we have in the human experience. But to do that, we need something like a definition.
There have been plenty of attempts to define what a ‘god’ is, but in many ways it’s like trying to have a definition of ‘religion’. Because of the diversity of the subject, most any definition seems to exclude some cultural activities that others would consider a religion; a more broad definition would perhaps include things some would say is not a religion. But instead of a definition, is there something in common with all god concepts?
I think so. Firstly, a god, of any stripe, is considered a being that has some sort of mind or will or consciousnesses. Whether it is the deistic god that just created the universe and nothing else, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the god Shiva the destroyer, the spirit in the trees, whatever. All such god concepts have some sort of mind. But another important feature seems to be this: a god has a mind that does not require a physical/material body. A god could be in a material object, such as a person or plant or rock, but it also can exist beyond that. The deistic god doesn’t necessarily live in the physical universe; the Holy Spirit is made up of something completely unlike atoms; Ganesha may have an elephant body, but Hindus don’t think it has DNA. Other concepts such as Fate may also fit into this scheme since that is some sort of mind controlling things but without having a physical body.
Now, consider a being that is powerful and knowledgeable like what many god concepts have. It has a mind, but suppose instead it has a physical body. What would we call that? Well, that sounds to me like an alien. You may know Clarke’s 3rd law: a sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic to those that don’t know better. But even so, the alien is still a creature (or robot), and it still have a physical body. Even if the mind of that being is in a computer and exists in a virtual reality, it is still dependent on the computer that establishes the cyberspace for that mind. Break the computer, break the mind of that alien. So we do seem to have a distinction between gods and aliens, at least enough to do some philosophical lifting.
Now, compare this to things we can claim to know. We know humans have minds, and we see that humans have bodies. We also know that you wreck that body up enough, it stops having a mind. Many people believe the mind survives beyond this state, but there has been no successful evidence of this. There is also no convincing evidence of other minds/spirits without a physical body, namely ghosts. TV shows may try to provide such ‘evidence’, but it does more to show how cheap we can make drama these days.
So, let us create a set, and with that we can work on establishing a prior probability. We have the set of all known minds–all the minds that we can establish that have existed in history. That key word there is ‘established’. We cannot include ghosts and demons which have not been evidenced well-enough to say that they do exist. People, on the other hand, we can say they have minds. If you are a solipsist, you have to still admit people appear as if they have minds even if ultimately it’s not consciousness in the sense you argue only you have. So we have a significant set of minds that we know exist. Currently, there are about 7 billion human versions out there.
Now, note that this argument does not depend on what consciousness is. If it’s due to a substance dualism or a sort of monism, we still have the sure observation that that consciousness exists with a body. We do not have evidence of that mind existing beyond the destruction of that body is the only point that matters here.
For this exercise, I am also not considering animal minds, but if I did it will only support my argument, which you will see in a moment. If we include animals, and animals (at least some) have minds, that will add more things that have minds and physical bodies. We don’t have any more examples of dolphin ghosts than we have of people ghosts.
So, we want to include all human minds that have been observed. I shall limit myself only to homo sapiens for the same reason I’m avoiding non-human animals: we could argue if they actually have minds that we could compare to our own, but even so they only add the number of members that have minds as well as physical bodies. So this argument is not dependent on any theory of the mind or theories about animal minds.
If we consider just modern humans, then we have to include not just living humans but also past ones. We know Beethoven had a mind and a physical body, so he should be included in our calculations. And the same for the guy down the Straße from Beethoven. We want to include all modern humans that lived. We may argue that some humans don’t have minds due to problems with the development of their brains, such as those that are microcephalic. There are arguments there, but they are a small minority of all modern humans, so it will not significantly affect the total number. How many humans have there been? The estimates are about 100,000,000,000 (100 billion). So, don’t believe the myth that there are more people alive now than are dead; it’s way wrong.
What does this get us? Well, I am making a set, and it is the set of all minds that we know exist. We do not include gods or demons here because they are not confirmed; gods in particular we are trying to estimate how probable they even are. And the examples of minds that we know exist, we know that all of those have physical bodies. So, then you can ask what is the probability that we find a mind that does not have need of a physical body?
To make that estimate, we have a tool called Laplace’s law of succession. What it cares about are two things: how many tests or observations have you conducted, and how many of them were successes. Here, the number of observations we have are the number of minds that we have confirmed exist (100 billion). The number of successes of finding a mind that did not need a physical body is currently zero. What these numbers will give us is the probably of finding another mind and if it has no need of a physical body.
Basically, think of it as having a bag of marbles and you can’t see inside, but you can take a marble out at a time. You want to figure out how likely the next you nab is blue. Suppose the bag is well-shaken so that some balls aren’t at the bottom for some reason. Now, if you reach in 30 times, and all the times it was red, you have strong reason to think the next one will not be blue but instead red; that will be true whether you have taken almost all the balls out of the bag or if there are millions of balls left. If you keep reaching in and keep getting red, you become more and more confident that there are no blue ones in there. You may not reach certainty, but you can have exceedingly high probability in your favor. Laplace himself used this to show that, since there have been millions of observations of the Sun rising the next day, we have high probability that the Sun will rise tomorrow; we can’t have certainty, but it can be high enough that we live our lives not fearing the Sun won’t appear to rise.
So what about the case of minds without physical bodies? To calculate, the numerator of the probability equation (as proven by Laplace) is s + 1, where s is the number of successful tests or observations of an event. The denominator of the equation is 2 + o, where o is the number of observations/tests, both successful and unsuccessful. Since s = 0, and o = ~100 billion, we get a probability of effectively 1 in a 100 billion (10^-11). Inversely, the probably of any other mind that we think of or talk or discover exists, the probably that it does exist with a physical body is 1 minus the probability that it’s a mind without a physical body. That would be about 99.999999999%. That is a level of confidence beyond even what we have for many particles in modern physics. The Higgs discovery, for example, has a probability of being a statistical fluke better than the minds without physical bodies hypothesis.
Now, this was the probability for a mind without need of a physical body. This is a problem for any god. But if you want to look at the prior probability of a specific god, that probability is even worse. That is because this probability is the chance of a god existing of any kind. A specific kind of god will mean that it has more properties than just a mind without a body. One simple law from probability theory is that the probability one thing being true is also greater or equal to the probability of that same thing and another being true. That is P(A) >= P(A&B) where A and B are two things that are true. So, if you want to figure out the probability that any specific god, your prior probability will be less than the 10^-11 calculated above. And some of those properties could shoot it down really fast. How many omnipotent things do you observe compared to how many things in general? How many things are all-knowing? I’m also assuming that these are coherent ideas. What about something that exists beyond time and space. That’s another probability that has to be matched up with what we calculated, making things much worse. And if you have something with all sorts of amazing properties, that prior probability is going to become amazingly small.
And again, this prior probability is actually generous. We didn’t consider non-human minds, for example. If whales, crows, and other creatures are conscious, or other humans that aren’t homo sapiens, such as Neanderthals, or homo erectus, or the ‘hobbits’ we found (and the ones I was at midnight) have minds, that number of observations will skyrocket. We have millions of years of such ancestors and cousins compared to the ~100,000 years of modern humans. But in all these cases we don’t have any observations of minds without bodies. So this makes the prior probability worse for gods, probably worse than 1 in a trillion (10^-12).
So, if anything, this prior probability of 10^-11 is generous. It also encompasses other things such as Fate, demons, etc. So, unless one has amazing evidence for their god, and they also need evidence for the other specific attributes it has, you have extremely good reasons to think it’s false. Aliens, on the other hand, don’t have this problem because they have physical bodies; if we find a mind out there in the universe, we have well over 99% confidence it will have need of a physical body. The only way to change this is through evidence. You may be able to think of a philosophically possible way that a god exists so that it is consistent with some given evidence (such as a explanation for evil in the world given the philosopher’s god), but you still have to overcome this vanishingly small probability.
This means that even positions such as deism are immensely improbable initially. Unless someone can provide powerful evidence for their belief, the position of agnosticism cannot be justified. This isn’t a 50/50 chance situation; this is a worse chance any any individual buying a lottery ticket and winning. And for a Christian, your have to defend not only the existence of a mind without need of a physical body, but you also need to include the probability of a being that created the world, created people, prefers some over others, had a child that killing and resurrecting was part of a plan, etc. You can see that this creates an amazingly low prior probability, but even just assuming the generous 10^-11, your work is cut out for you.
To defeat the probability I assigned, you can do that in two possible ways: show examples of minds without need of physical bodies, increasing the value of s in Laplace’s law; provide strong lines of evidence that indicate a mind without a body over any other possibility; provide a philosophical proof that a mind without a physical body is a logical necessity. At this point in history, the last one is likely the hardest to get (ontological arguments are considered very dubious by philosophers), while if may be possible to find a mind without a physical body. If we have proof of ghosts or souls outside the physical envelope they come in, then we have something to work with, and this is the more likely thing to happen. However, there have been many, many attempts to do that, so even that route is not going to go well. As for evidence that only a mind without a body can explain, that is also more philosophical, such as the cosmological argument used by people such as William Lane Craig, but the first part of his argument (the universe has a cause) is already hard enough to establish; his argument that it had to be a conscious mind is even weaker IMO, and that mind not having a physical body is also hard to demonstrate.
One last possible escape is if you go back to the marble analogy I mentioned. If the bag wasn’t well-shaken, it could be that we are just picking off the red marbles and the blue ones are just at the bottom. Perhaps it’s the case that we just aren’t looking the right way to find any minds without physical bodies and hence not finding gods. However, this argument won’t work well unless one can actually show that the results are biased by our searching methods. In the case of the marbles, you would have to know something about the bag so that your statement that “the sampling is biased” can stick; you need information, and otherwise you are making excuses. The same with gods. Besides, we are finding these minds on earth, and the various religions speak of gods here with us or being everywhere. We would have to suppose hiding gods of some sort, but that will actually hurt our probability estimates. You have to include both the probability of a mind without a body existing as well as the probability of such a being trying to hide itself; you combine that and get a probability lower than 10^-11. Making an excuse for why you don’t have the evidence doesn’t make your hypothesis better; it makes it worse. Only if the excuse is well-evidenced can it help, but we have no good reason to think such beings hide (even if you can think of a reason why some possible minds without bodies would hide, that won’t apply to all minds without bodies, so it cannot save the day).
UPDATE: To make this last point clearer, let’s consider the case of aliens. If we used the same arguments we did here, all cases of minds have been terrestrial, but then wouldn’t that make aliens amazingly improbable anywhere in the universe? That shouldn’t follow, but the reason is because we obviously have a biased sampling; we have only been able to look on Earth for minds, while our searches for (physical) minds beyond Earth has been woefully inadequate. But in the very proposition of alien minds, we are talking about something that, by definition, is a very, very far away and almost impossible to observe for the vast majority of the universe. Minds without physical bodies, on the other hand, are not by definition very far away or difficult to observe. Why they would be requires further argument, but that requires more propositions to be true (which will lower the prior probability anyways; again, P(A) >= P(A&B)). And such excuses are going to hurt the probability significantly since most god concepts are compatible with them being observable to humans. Heck, most religions have us communing with them and seeing them. Again, the key point is that there is nothing in the characteristic of a mind without a body that necessitates that it is hard to observe, while for ETs it is (being, by definition, very far away).
So, in the mean time, you have a probability of a god existing of any sort at less than 10^-11. This makes agnosticism a very difficult position to hold and theism absurdly unlikely. Without some amazingly good evidence, the idea can be dismissed on its face. Perhaps it’s not as absurd as a round square, but it’s approaching that.
How’s that for Warring on Christmas?