Saturday, August 25, 2007

Does Sin Corrupt our Ability to See God or Does the Religious Urge Corrupt our Reason?

A group of philosophers sympathetic with the Christian take on things have constructed a complicated and technical account of God beliefs and their source in human cognition known as reformed epistemology. On the view, espoused by Plantinga and Wolterstorff and widely cited and supported in recent years, humans are endowed by God with an innate faculty for sensing God under the right circumstances. This sensus divinitatus is one aspect of a properly functioning cognitive and belief forming system in humans. When it is not corrupted by the invasive noetic effects of sin, this faculty produces a belief in God that is immediate, direct, and non-inferentially justified. That is, a belief in God is properly basic according to the reformed epistemologists. It is not supported by any other independent or more fundamental facts. It cannot be justified on the basis of other beliefs. Rather, it’s axiomatic like the law of non-contradiction or the identity of indiscernibles. The sensus divinitatus will manifest itself in a variety of ways—when you see a sweeping vista of majestic mountaintops, or when your first child is born, or upon pondering the vastness and magnificence of the universe in the night sky.

Misinterpreting these feelings of the divine as indicators of a non-Christian God as a Hindu might, or suppressing them and denying that God is manifest in experience are all the by-products of a sinful nature. Doubters, skeptics, and deniers—anyone who doesn’t buy into the Reformed Epistemology picture—have all had their God given God detectors corrupted, co-opted, and distorted by sin. What they need, of course, is the salvation of Jesus to cleanse them of their immorality and to restore the proper function of their belief faculties. Then they will see that they were not right with God before. And then they will have properly basis religious experience of God. So the view has a the tidy way to deal with criticisms and legitimate objections. No objection to the whole scheme can have any merit because it arises from doubt, which is really just wickedness. If you had some experiences that seemed to have profound religious significance, like any normal person you would wonder about alternative explanations. Could this just be a weird artifact of my neurology? I wonder what natural explanation there could be for this strange disassociation? Maybe I ate something bad? The full-blown theistic supernatural explanation is one possibility. But according to Reformed Epistemology any suspicion that you have that it might have been something natural is really the result of your innately evil nature and the taint that sin has placed on your ability to think straight. They position undercuts any objections with an ad hominem attack on the moral character of the questioner.

The whole scheme is also clever (and insidious) for inventing a notion of private evidence that shouldn’t be held up for any public scrutiny by someone who has doubts. Once you’re in the special club, you’re provided with “self-authenticating witness of the holy spirit” that gives you perfect, unassailable assurance about your God doctrine no matter what empirical questions or doubts may arise. Ordinarily, evidence is something that is sharable and public. The prosecuting attorney displays the gun that was the murder weapon for everyone in the court, the dentist looks at X-rays, and your mechanic points to the leaking oil around a gasket as evidence that there is a problem. But this special God feeling isn’t like that; it’s just a feeling you have that something’s got to be true, so it can’t be shared with anyone else. Plantinga and some of the people in this camp suggest that the earnest Christian in this situation ought to consider alternative explanations for their experience. Many properly basic beliefs, including the God one presumably, are defeasible. If you have the experiences, and if your conviction that that’s really God your feeling persists after you have scrutinized the belief and reflected on what might be causing it, then you will have a warranted, and true belief that there is a God.

Needless to say, the notion of private evidence here is deeply problematic. Imagine an IRS agent telling you that she’s got self-authenticating, private evidence that you can’t see that you owe the government an extra $20,000 tax dollars. Imagine a doctor telling you that she’s got self-authenticating evidence that you’ve got cancer, but the evidence can’t be grasped by anyone who doesn’t already believe it. Or imagine your husband telling you that he’s got special, private, self-authenticating evidence that you’ve been cheating on him. Then suppose furthermore that they assure you that their conclusion is right because they have thought long and hard about it and considered other possibilities. Evidence that's private isn't really evidence at all and a mere feeling that something just must be true, no matter how strong or persistent, is never enough to give it warrant.

Here’s a model of human rationality and religious belief that is much more accurate. Humans are endowed by evolution with a remarkably effective set of problem solving skills that can be group loosely under the general heading “reason.” In the right circumstances, our reason allows us to devise complicated and elegant solutions to challenges, make accurate inferences and predictions, and arrive at many well-justified and true beliefs. We manage to cure diseases like polio and land people on the moon. But our cognitive systems are kludgey and imperfect. They’re strapped together with disparate functions and tools that were available at various stages in a long, convoluted evolutionary history. Sometimes they don’t track the truth at all, like when you have an attack of claustrophobia, or you can’t bear to even look at a dish that once made you sick when you were a child. Sometimes our cognitive faculties overreact, mislead, underestimate, or misjudge.

Our fancier faculties of reason are also often overwhelmed by a variety of emotional, psychological, and biological forces that erode our ability to reason well and see the truth. One legacy of our evolutionary history appears to be a powerful disposition towards religious belief, experiences, and feelings. Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker have recently argued that natural selection may have endowed us with a sort of mind-attribution module. Construing other organisms behavior as the product of the planning and goals within their minds, whether they really have them or not, would be an effective mechanism for anticipating and projecting the behaviors of potential predators and prey. But we’re just built to take it too far and endow everything with a mind—the wind, the ocean, the starry sky, and the world itself.

In an earlier post, I called it the Urge—a powerful and seductive need we have to be religious. Completely aside from the factual question of God, it is obvious to anyone who observes humans and their religious activities that we desperately want there to be a God and we will adopt the most contorted gymnastics of reasoning to rationalize the belief. Even if there are some theists with good reasons, there are far more with sloppy, fallacy ridden, biased grounds that they offer for their beliefs. And in lots of these cases, it’s not really the poor reasoning that is offered in defense of someone’s God belief that led them to believe at all. More often it is the case that people have the belief first as a result of the Urge’s infiltration of their consciousness, and then they back fill that conclusion with some superficial reasons. So the Urge is really the dark side of your nature that threatens to corrupt your more noble aspects. It’s the alluring, siren call of religion itself, not sin, that will co-opt reason’s ability to see the world in an accurate light.

Staying on the straight and narrow will require resisting the temptation of religion’s easy, emotionally satisfying answers to the biggest metaphysical questions. Living up to your potential to reason clearly and evaluate the evidence objectively demands that you be constantly vigilant against seduction of religion’s false comforts.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Garbage In, Garbage Out

An Associated Press poll recently reported that 1 in 4 American adults did not read a single book last year. And of the few who did read anything at all, their primary choices were the Bible and related religious works, “The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories.” Full story here.

The problem: every new human baby on this planet is essentially the same empty container as baby’s have been for thousands of years. Despite the fact that we have made astounding general advances in science, knowledge, medicine, and culture, a new baby’s head has none of those advances and advantages in it by default. We have to start over educating every new generation, catching them up to the front edge of where our collective knowledge is for that generation. A baby could be raised to have just as backward, ignorant, and simplistic a worldview as a baby born a 1,000 years ago if it doesn’t get access and exposure to the crest of the wave of our knowledge of the world.

If we feed our minds with superstitious, religious, fuzzy-headed religious nonsense, and judging from the poll information we’re reading little else, we are in real danger of turning future generations of us back to a dark age of theological tyranny. Americans are buying tens of millions of copies of the Left Behind books, which describe in elaborate gloating detail all of the horrible wretchedness that non-believers will be left to endure at the hands of the anti-christ after the believers are all raptured to heaven. (No doubt all of the readers view themselves as being among the chosen few virtuous people who will be saved.) Countless copies of the Bible are sold every year so that people can engage in endless textual exegesis that promises to do little except hold us back politically, historically, and morally as it works its way into our minds and our lives.

Our minds will come to embody those ideas, principles, images, and practices that we put into them. Even if you think it’s a good thing that so many people are reading the Bible, you cannot think that it is good for us that that’s all we read when we read at all. There are so many better sources that we could be expanding our knowledge of the world with. And the further behind a generation falls by not reading and getting educated, then the harder it will be for the next generation to catch up. And the less we know about biology, physics, history, and society, the easier it will be for the darkest side of the religious urge towards fundamentalism, intolerance, and ignorance to take over.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Science is Not A Religion

Special Guest Blog this week: Scott Merlino, Ph.D., Philosophy Department, CSUS

Lots of people believe science should get off of its high-horse and admit it is a religion or just like a religion since it too is built upon apparent articles of faith. For instance, what scientist can deny that a world outside of humans, languages or minds actually exists? However, this article of faith is hardly unique to science: Religious people accept it too. In fact, I'll wager that most all of the basic claims about reality that science accepts are also accepted by the religious. But wait, don't scientists accept the Big Bang Theory or Darwinian Evolution, whereas many religious people do not? Nope. Many scientists do not accept Big Bang Theory but they do accept that the origin and the complexity of the cosmos need explaining. Similarly, many scientists are ambivalent about Darwinian Evolution and acknowledge that it is possible that many (maybe even all) complex life forms emerge without any natural selection operating whatsoever. Such scientists accept that life begets life and even that sometimes it is possible that non-life produces life but propose alternative explanations for life that either diminish the scope of natural selection as a creative force or supplants it with another natural (chemical, physical, probabilistic) process.

What scientists believe as fellow observers of the world is that there are curious phenomena needing explaining. There appear to be law-like regularities in nature or curious organisms behaving in ways sometimes conducive to survival and sometimes not; they only sometimes accept explanations of these provisionally, based on observable, testable, imperfect evidence. Religious people agree superficially with this attitude, but, where they differ with science is in their purely faith-based belief (wholly not dependent on empirical evidence) that not only are such things describable by observation and inference, such things are only fully explicable by reference to at least one intelligent, super-powerful, supernatural creator-being or force whose existence cannot be doubted.

Every article of faith in science is subject to doubt and only accepted conditioned on and constrained by empirical evidence. But most articles of faith in religion are never doubted, each is unconditionally believed and none are constrained by any evidentiary limits whatsoever. Faith overrides "reasonable doubt" in religion or when coupled with wishful thinking. Faith licenses the religious to accept what appears impossible: miracles, healings, epiphanies etc. In science, faith is the enemy of reasons for accepting; indeed, grounds for reasonable doubt are sought out---no scientist wants to accept what might be false or better accounted for by a more accurate theory. Religion says: "Many miracles are inexplicable, thus a mysterious divinity must be their cause." Science says: "Many allegedly miraculous events have been reported and are heretofore inexplicable, thus we need to consider (a) whether such events occur and (b) whether other explanations account for what is alleged before we settle on any traditional, popular or untestable explanations."

Science can function without believing that whatever it accepts is true or beyond reasonable doubt. Religion cannot. For instance, science can explain religious experiences (REs) or near-death "out of body" experiences (OBEs) without referring to souls, spirits, gods or angels. Religious people think these are proofs of the divine or immortality or evidence of life-after-death. But scientists do not go so far, since they know, from careful, controlled observations that human minds are capable of imagining all sorts of things, especially under the influence of brain chemicals released during stressful events. Also, meditation, drugs, exhaustion, hallucination, seizures, brain surgeries and even memories induce and inform REs and OBEs. Religion cannot even entertain the possibility that prophets did not talk to God (or divine messengers) or that its messianic-heroes healed the sick or arose from the dead. Can a religious person really imagine there is no heaven or a life without meaning? Science routinely imagines the cosmos without a beginning or life without a purpose.

So here are five big differences. (1) Religion presumes more than science, since it assumes the existence of entities or a non-physical realm about which science remains skeptical or silent, given that whatever science cannot examine and test science is neutral about. (2) Religion has too many articles of faith science can do without: In science, what explains with fewer commitments to unsubstantiated speculation or unobservables is better than what explains with more. (3) Religion has a built-in faith-based immunity to criticism and scrutiny which science rejects; the scientific attitude requires a perpetual, skeptical attitude about articles of faith however much these may support what one wishes to believe. (4) Religion believes what it does not bother to prove, since evidence is either not needed or optional as long as it is complementary; science accepts only what it proves (tests) and this is only conditioned upon the quantity and quality of the evidence available. (5) Religion never rejects or corrects its foundational beliefs, but science often does---this is the source of its honesty and its usefulness. Science is a self-correcting, revisionary, fallible process that routinely revises and even abandons altogether inadequate hypotheses in favor of better ones.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Is Heaven Guilt Money?

When many people consider the suffering and death that seems gratuitous in this world, they find comfort in the idea that the next world will be continual, infinite bliss. In response to problem of evil challenges to the existence of God, theists have often tried to absolve God by pointing out that a completely miserable existence in this life will be vastly outweighed and overshadowed by the unimaginable bliss of heaven that will go on forever. It would seem that they think that the evil in this world really doesn’t matter because there is so much good to come. Tom, a recent commenter, summarized William Lane Craig this way: eternal life with God is so infinitely pleasurable and glorious that the sufferings of this life are not even worthy to be compared with it. If Heaven is +100, then evil on earth is only, say, -5.

Good-Will-Outweigh-Evil theodicies of this sort completely miss the relevant point. Suppose Michael Jackson, after sexually molesting a child, pleads, “but that was just a few minutes of harm I did to him. Compare that to the incredible wealth and happiness I lavished on him and his family with the 10 million dollar out-of-court settlement I gave them. Doesn’t that incredible reward make a difference?”

Or imagine that Donald Trump walks by an alley in Manhattan and witnesses a brutal mugging. All Trump needs to do is dial 911 to get the victim, call him Smith, some help. Trump doesn’t call, and Smith gets brutally beaten nearly to death. Later in a fit of guilt Trump donates 100 million dollars to Smith and his family, and acquires all of the best medical care for Smith to assure him a speedy and complete recovery. Does the award that Trump gives Smith after the gratuitous suffering absolve Trump of moral responsibility? No. Should Trump have done something? Yes. Should we conclude that Trump did the moral and virtuous thing when he ignored Smith’s mugging because of the amends that Trump made later? No. And Trump’s guilt would have been that much worse if he had done the beating, right?

Obviously, committing some horrible atrocity to someone, or standing by idly when you could have done something to stop it is not rectified by any amount of award or “guilt money,” if you will. Even if we have eternal bliss in heaven, that doesn’t change the fact that on that those children were herded into the gas chambers at Auschwitz, or that the tsunami wiped out 240,000 people. Gratuitous suffering is gratuitous suffering, no matter how peachy things are later. The immorality of committing it to someone or allowing to happen when you could have done something isn’t affected in the slightest by the fact that it won’t always be happening.

It is a perversion of morality and indicates a twisted slavishness to the God idea for Good-Will-Outweigh-Evil theodicists to dismiss all of the gratuitous suffering in human history with this wave of the hand. No person with a minimal amount of moral decency would ever accept such a superficial justification for such moral neglect in the face of profound evil. Among other things, espousing this view thoroughly discredits any claim that the theist might have made that morality can only come from God and only by believing. What this justification makes clear is quite the opposite—often it is a belief in God that makes it possible for us to achieve a level of moral insensitivity and moral distortion that we would not have had the imagination to come up with otherwise. The slavish devotion to the God idea drives us to new lows of moral indifference.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Super Evil Challenge

Let’s say in a problem solving situation or an exertion of the will of a being with a purpose, when all of the downsides, negatives, and evils have been reduced as much as they can given the parameters of the problem and the tools available for solving it, then the evils associated with the solution or act have been optimized. It is not enough that some good come from an evil, nor is it enough that more good come from the evils. It might not be worth it, or there might be some better solution available with less evil. Suppose that you have a tooth that has a cavity that needs to be treated. You could continue to ignore it. Or a neighbor has offered to pull it out with some pliers with no anaesthetic for free. Or you can go to the dentist on 25th street who will fill the cavity for $500. Or there is another dentist on B street who will fill the cavity for $250, and you have every reason to think that the 25th street dentist and the B street dentist will do equivalent work. You can afford $250, but not $500 for the problem. There are 4 solutions available in the situation, but one of them is better overall than the others. The evil that you will have to endure with the B street dentist, the discomfort of getting the tooth worked on, the lost time from work, and the $250, is optimized with regard to the solution which is addressing the cavity.

Theistic solutions to the problem of evil should be understood from the other side of the equation. We find ourselves in the midst of what might possibly be the equivalent of a complicated, painful, and very large procedure that is lasting for eons. If there is an omni God, then the evils of the procedure would have been optimized. Every pain, every death, every bit of suffering, and every parking ticket or ingrown toenail would have been minimized as much as is logically possible. But we don’t and can’t know from seeing the planning and decision making process that things have in fact been optimized. We don’t even know that there was planning or decision making process at all or that any of it has a point. And the analogy is strained by the fact that God is alleged to be an omni-being. The dentist (and your neighbor) is limited by her knowledge, her tools, her education, her ability to deaden pain, and her materials. She will readily admit that her methods are not perfect, but they are the best she can do. But an omni-being would suffer none of those physical limitations of knowledge and power. An omni-being would be able to produce the best solution that is logically, not just physically, possible.

From where we are in all of this, all we can do is observe features of the events surrounding us and try to figure out first, if there was a planning and decision making process to it at all, and second if there are any reasons to think from the events around us that every single evil that has ever transpired is an optimized evil. Is someone going to work on us with a pair of rusty pliers? Is there any point to it all? Or is it evident that this is the most highly tuned, sensitive and pain-efficient procedure that an infinitely wise, good, and powerful being could have produced?

In every case in your life where you perform some action from the most trivial to the most important, you do so on the presumption that the world could be better in some fashion than it actually is. Things would be better if I had a cup of coffee. Things would be better if we could achieve peace in the middle east. Things would be better if a Democrat was elected president. Things would be better if I stepped out of the path of that oncoming bus. Right now, without even thinking about it very hard, you can come up with a thousand ways in which the world could be improved. And you can come up with a list that isn’t just about improving it selfishly for you, but ways in which it could really be improved for everybody.

First, it’s hard to see how we could possibly rectify believing that evil has been cosmically optimized with any sort of action on our parts. Second, it’s also obvious that every decision that you make, opinion that you express, and action you perform presumes that evil has not been optimized in the world. If we didn’t presume that things are not optimal, we’d have no grounds for acting. Third, of the face of it, every one of us encounters a multitude of situations every day where it sure looks like things could be better than they are, if only by a little bit.

So the burden of proof for theism in the face of the problem of evil is to overcome all of the evidence in all of our lives for a suboptimal world and show that evil has been optimized in every regard for every moment of all of history. The indirect route of doing that is to give an argument for an OG’s existence that is more compelling than the extent to which evil does not appear to be optimized. Can the burden of proof that all evil in the history of sentience is optimized evil be met? Do we have reasons for believing in God that are more compelling than all of the suffering in history. I don’t think that we have such reasons. The vast majority of people, even the believers, seem to agree that the existence of God is not the sort of thing that can be proven or shown through argument.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Bogus Probabilistic Judgments and God

There are frequentist and Bayesian approaches to probabilistic judgments about the likelihood that some claim is true.

In frequentist probability judgments we must have prior observations of the relevant data to produce a statistical claim such as “In the United States, 51% of babies born are female.” With that data about the previous rate of female babies, we can pick a random baby being born and predict that there is a 51% chance that it will be female. This claim is represented as P(f) = .51.

So if the property in question is certain, then the P(x) = 1, and if there is no chance that the property will occur then P(x) = 0.

In many cases, however, where we have not been able to observe prior relevant instances of the property or phenomena in question the Bayesian probability assessments allow us to form a probability judgment. If we were trying to predict the likelihood that a new technology would break down such as a missile that had never been launched before, or the likelihood that a basketball team in one division could beat a team in another division where they had never played before, we would have no previous data upon which to base the estimation.

We would need to use our other knowledge of factors that would be likely to affect the outcome. Suppose that I am trying to judge the probability of c = Hilary Clinton wins the United States presidency in 2008. And I have a body of relevant background knowledge K. We are asking what is the probability that c is true given background information K? or P(c|K)? If we had frequency data, like in the case of the percentage of female babies born in previous years, we could use that in our background knowledge.

The Bayesian formulations of probability are particularly useful because they allow us to distinguish between different probabilities that different individuals would assign to the same event given different subjective kinds and amounts of background information. If Susan has a great deal of information about Clinton’s bid for the presidency, and that information, as she sees it, strongly indicates that Clinton will win, then P(c|K) for her will be higher than Mary who has a lot of information that appears to indicate that Clinton will lose. So naturally the kinds of background information, the amount, the quality and reliability of it will affect the resulting estimations that each woman gives to the event. If Susan primarily reads left wing, liberal, pro-Clinton news sources, yet she thinks that those sources give her an accurate picture, then the likelihood of c|K will approach 1.

Another important component of point about probabilistic reasoning is that the total probability of all the possible outcomes must add up to 1. So if there are only two teams, A and B, competing to win a game, then since one of them must win, P(A|K) + P(B|K) = 1. And if there are currently 12 candidates for the Republican, Democrat, and all third party nominations, then the probability of all of those added together must be 1. So as the options increase, the likelihood that any one outcome will result is diminished. This aspect of probabilistic reasoning is relevant in the God cases we will consider.

What about God? Bayesian reasoning has been used lately to calculate the probability that God does or does not exist. In a famous modern version of the design argument, Richard Swinburne has argued that our background information renders it exceedingly unlikely that all of the matter in the universe would behave according to such a simple, elegant, consistent, and orderly set of natural laws.

Swinburne says,

“That there should be material bodies is strange enough; but that they should all have such similar powers which they inevitably exercise, seems passing strange. It is strange enough that physical objects should have powers at all—why should they not just be, without being able to make a difference in the world? But that they should all, throughout infinite time and space, have some general powers identical to those of all other objects (and they all be made of components of very few fundamental kinds, each component of a given kind being identical in all characteristics with each other such component) and yet there be no cause of this at all seems incredible. . . . Yet this orderliness, if there is no explanation in terms of the action of God, is the orderliness of coincidence.” (70 Pojman—The Existence of God, 1979)

As Swinburne sees it, there are only two possibilities. Either God is responsible for the existence of an orderly universe, or it is the product of random chance. So we are comparing the probability that the orderly universe came about by God’s hand to the probability that it just happened. Most of us would agree that it does seem exceedingly unlikely that chance could have produced all natural law for all matter over all time. And Swinburne maintains that we have background information about God’s preferences for beauty, order, simplicity, and structure, and we have reason to believe that God would desire an environment that would be conducive to our existence and the growth of our knowledge and moral virtue. So the resulting probability that we would find a universe like this one as a result of God’s act of creation is vastly greater than the probability that we would find one that is the product of random chance. Thus, the probability that God exists is very high.

The problem with this sort of reasoning, even though it may appear to be compelling at first, is that it reflects a profound lack of imagination and myopia about the range of possibilities.

Suppose I am visiting a foreign country and I wander into a stadium where a very popular professional sports game is being played. I don’t recognize the sport, I know nothing about the rules, and I have very little information about the context of the match. But it does appear to me after watching the plays for a bit that there are two teams, and each is trying to outscore the other. I also see a big scoreboard at the end of the field and an enormous trophy that appears to be waiting for the winners. I look at the teams, see the red jersey team score a few times, and figure out that they are ahead by many points on the scoreboard. So I conclude that given that one team’s losing means the other one loses, and that red is substantially ahead, the probability that the red team will win the trophy is very high, and the probability that the green team will win the trophy is very low. The two probabilities must add up to 1, so I make an educated guess that the red team has a .8 chance of winning the trophy and the green team has the other .2 chance.

I leave before the match ends, and later I ask one of my local friends about the game. He tells me that in fact there is a very large tournament that is being played. The match between the red and green teams is just one of over a 1,000 matches that will be played between 2,000 teams. The winners of each round move on to the play other winners until a winner from among all of the 2,000 original teams is awarded the big trophy that I saw. Obviously, this new information and all these new possibilities that I did not previous know about affect my estimation of the likelihood that the red team would win the trophy. They may have been likely to win that match, but the likelihood of their beating every other team in the tournament for the trophy is an entirely different matter. And with my gross lack of information about the game and the other teams, I realize I am not in any sort of position to assign a likelihood to red’s winning the trophy now. With games, hazarding a guess in these circumstances is harmless. But if the outcomes in question were more important, say about whether the navigation system in a new passenger plane will work, it be would be irresponsible and foolish of me to offer my ridiculously under informed opinion about the outcome.

The mistake I made in estimating their chances of red’s winning as so high is comparable to the mistake that people, including Swinburne, frequently make with regard to God’s existence. If in fact there were only two possible outcomes—either the red or the green team wins, or either God created the universe or it happened by chance—then odds that one of those two outcomes will result will be much higher than if there are 1,000 or 2,000 total possible outcomes. If there are an infinite number of possible outcomes or hypotheses, then it would not appear that we could reliably or successfully apply Bayesian probabilities to the scenario at all.

That is the problem with leaping to the God option as the only other possibility besides random chance. What we are trying to explain, according to Swinburne, is the cause of all the orderly matter in nature. How many different supernatural forces might be responsible? It might have been some supernatural but sub-omni being—one that lacks all knowledge, or it might have lacked all power, or it certainly might have lacked all goodness; there might have been 2 of them, or 10, or 50; it might not have been a blind, unconscious force, not a personal being; it might have been aliens; it might have been 2 aliens; or a stupid alien; or a negligent alien, and on and on and on. What we have seen with the teleological and cosmological arguments is that the evidence before us underdetermines the God inference. God might have done—it seems possible that an omni-being could have done it. But many other forces that are lesser than God are consistent with the results we find too.

Since this list is infinitely long, we can’t really get any help from Bayesian reasoning because we just don’t have adequate background information to assign probabilities to all of these hypotheses, and there appears to be an infinitely long list of them. Over and over again in God arguments that invoke Bayes theorem to motivate their conclusion we see this failure of imagination and artificially narrow assessment of the possibilities. Stephen Unwin is guilty of the same mistake in The Probability of God. It happens so often that we have to suspect that they are being disingenuous in introducing probabilistic reasoning of any kind in the first place. People are easily overwhelmed by all the technical talk and formulas. But when the results at the end of the page show that the probability that God exists = .85 or some such high number, we’re all suitably impressed with how “scientific” it all seems. But if we are serious about considering all the possible explanatory hypotheses and trying to sort between them, then we’ll have to treat the God story as just one competing among many. And if the list of possibilities is infinitely long, then we should reject this bogus application of Bayes theorem to the matter in principle.