Can we calculate the probability of God?

In a book called “Dangerous Ideas,” an eminent scientist says that the probability that there is a God is very low.  As a scientist, I object.  How does one calculate the probability that there is or isn’t a God?

In scientific research, probability is calculated after one has gathered the data.  The conclusion that something has such and such a probability is shorthand for saying that there is an X chance (for example 1 out of 100 or 1 out of 2 ), that the results one has found in the sample used for the research can be extrapolated to a wider group.

For instance, if I pull ten pennies and five nickles out of a sack of a thousand coins, it is possible to calculate the chances (or probability) that the entire sack is filled with twice as many pennies as nickles, and that there are no dimes and quarters in the collection at all.  But what research data would a scientist analyze to determine the probability of God?  Science has no conceivable way of calculating the probability that there is or isn’t a God.  The question is simply outside the area of scientific competence. 

Some scientists believe in God and some don’t.  But scientists really should not try to use science to argue the case for or against the existence of God.  Any more than one should use religion to argue that the theories of quantum mechanics or gravity or relativity or evolution might be right – or wrong.  

I am quite convinced that any concept of God should be robust enough to survive the discovery that the universe is, for us humans, a shocking surprise.  Faith in God does not require that we deny evolution anymore than we need to deny that the earth revolves around the sun.

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
This entry was posted in a scientific theory examined, how do we know that?, science and religion. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Can we calculate the probability of God?

  1. Helen says:

    Be the first . . . ah, what an invitation.

    Terry, thank you for posing the issue with simplicity and clarity. These are more musings than systematic approaches to the issue.

    “God” by definition as what/who is beyond the material universe transcends scientific investigation. But much scientific investigation is in some sense “secondary.” For example, the bombardment of atoms in cyclotrons (Can’t wait for the Hadron Collider) reveals the ‘traces’ of the evolving particles. I do not mean a literal analog here but if human minds have thought “God,” from traces perhaps there is in the created, evolving universe pan-entheistic traces with which we resonate.

    Thomas Aquinas: Anything we say about the Divine we say analogically.
    The Paradox of (Eastern) Mysticism: Anything we say about God is not God.

    Perhaps that’s what religious thinkers share with scientific thinkers: awe and wonder; willingness to be surprised–to have your paradigm overturned!

    • My own thoughts run along the same lines as yours. “Anything we say about God is not God” – only a reflection of our struggle toward the light. And yes, I too think that the great religious and scientific thinkers both so often arrive in the same place of awe and wonder. And a sense of Unity, some Oneness that encompasses everything.

  2. Well, In anomaly to computers, I feel that

    -Science is more like hardware…
    Cause we deal with physical things that we can see, hear, touch… (i.e. sense.)
    -Spirituality is more like software…
    Cause it’s beyond the understanding of many, and only a you cannot find much physical evidence to support it…

    They actually cannot live without each other…

    And GOD…
    Well, he’s the electricity!
    The driving force that runs us all…
    I don’t believe in GOD (actually I’m an atheist) but I believe in some driving force that, maybe exists….
    So, if we are spiritual as well as scientific at the same time (no reason why we cannot), maybe mankind will progress at a faster pace.
    That’s all…
    🙂

    • I too puzzle about the relationship of what seems like two very different but necessary dimensions. Hardware & software, science & spirituality, matter & energy, body & mind, time/space & infinity all seem to me to be analogies for the sense so many of us have that looking at the world from only a single perspective somehow is only half the story. But how the two different dimensions interact or possibly are really one dimension that only look like two dimensions in our limited human view is the mystery, don’t you think? Terry Herman Sissons

      • Xelon says:

        Well according to my version of the software, time is relative. So even if the time may be passing slower for us, it could be that for God, this is like five minutes, because He doesn’t need to wait and see what happens because He always knows what’s going to happen, which doesn’t mean that He forced it on us. It’s just something we end up doing because of what we learn, or how we act based on our personality and choices. And I definitely agree with the half-story perspective. And even if scientists consider feelings and the existence of ‘soul’ like behaviour as simply chemical signals which are induced by memory or brain activity or something like that, then also there always remains the ultimate inevitable question: But why? Why would the so-and-so chemical act that way? How does it know to select this time to act and not another? It will always be half the story. Even if they come up with the way Big bang happened and all the scintific reasons and conditions of how it happened, when it happened, they will still be unable to answer the ultimate ‘why’.

      • Thank you for a comment that so clearly is something you’ve been thinking about. I absolutely agree that even a full explanation of how the Big Bang happened won’t answer the “God question.” I’m a scientist, I love science. But science doesn’t tell us the ultimate why of things – even if it aspires to tell us the how. In fact, the more science reveals to us about how the universe seems to work, the bigger the mystery seems to become. The more answers we get, the bigger our questions get.

        It might be, of course, as some people think, that there is no ultimate “why.” There is only “is.” Whichever the case may be, it seems to me we would be severely limiting ourselves if we think that the only things we can know are what we can study or prove scientifically. I am able to know some things only through music and poetry; some things only through watching the face of someone I love, or who loves me; some things only through loneliness or pain or standing on top of a windswept mountain or surrounded by the night sky.

        I have just spent some time reading your blog posts and suspect that you understand what I am trying to say.

        Terry Sissons

  3. MARTIN CADOGAN says:

    i agree with you all

  4. Many fallacies exist. The assumption that scepticism demands excessive reluctance to an idea, or that it demands close-mindedness or a rejection of possibility. The belief that if youre not a theist, you have to be an anti-theist. That bigotry against religion is fine. The belief that it is perfectly rational to reject a hypothetical or theoretical simply because its personally distasteful to your ideologies. The placement of atheism first and foremost in ones agendas as they pretend to participate in non-partisan science. The mistaken belief that pro-actively trying to undermine theism, even though you lack all proof of atheism, is rational. The belief that atheism is a proper scientific default position to have, instead of open-mindedness to both ends simultaneously.

    This is only a small list of the fallacies employed by the atheist regularly… and they all claim to be intelligent, rational and science oriented.

    You yourself are guilty. You stated, “As a scientist, I object”. Well, I object to you for that sentence alone. One does not have to be a scientist to recognize fallacies of reason, or fallacies of biased scientific pursuit. The presumption that being a scientist gives you the credentials necessary to refute bigoted atheism is a bias favoring science in itself.

    • Dear Descartes II, I think you may find that we are in greater agreement than you presume. I am keenly aware of the limitations of scientific conclusions and know that what we call “facts” are not fixed and immutable. I doubt most people appreciate just how drastically scientific “facts” have been discarded and displaced by new “facts” over the last five centuries.

      In truth, I think uncertainty on some level is an inescapable fact of the human condition. Science is one method by which we try to validate our conclusions, but it is neither infallible or inclusive.

      I also find those who use science to assert a certain superior capacity to demonstrate the validity of their religious positions irritating at best, arrogant and dangerous at worst.

      However, I do feel that “as a scientist,” I have the right to argue science with scientists. My objection “as a scientist” was to the invalid use of the concept of probability. The writer argued that there was only a slim probability that there was a God. What I was pointing out had nothing to do with this religious question, but related simply to the inaccurate application of this particular mathematical equation.

      Thnk you for your thoughts. I would like to hear more. Terry Sissons

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