The Probability of God
It is realised that the inference of the title may strike many as odd for a number of reasons. First, many people are often polarised towards a given view about God, usually due to cultural upbringing, before they are even old enough to weigh all the evidence.
Second, people also come to hold their beliefs about God’s existence, or non-existence, through an emotional need or experience in their lives. As a result, very few people ever sit down and rationalise the probability of God’s existence based on logic. Somehow, for many, considering the probability of God’s existence just doesn’t seem to be an appropriate way to come to any conclusion about God, even though the whole idea is surrounded by uncertainty. In essence, God is often thought to be a matter of the heart, not the head. This said; the following discussion will try to let the head guide the heart by splitting the debate about the existence of God into 2 facets:
- What is the evidence for God's existence?
- And if God does exist, what is the nature of God?
However, for the purposes of this discussion, we are going to disregard all circumstantial evidence, which basically rules out all human myths, scriptures and the emotional need to believe in a God. For it would seem that the existence of God has to be considered in the widest context possible, i.e.
- The Universe
OK, the list is a cliché, but it serves as a reminder that the totality of any discussion about the creator of everything, e.g. God, cannot really be constrained by what amounts to little more than the unsubstantiated, and conflicting, beliefs of a minority of the inhabitants of a small and insignificant planet, circling one of 100 billion stars within one of 100 billion galaxies. However, this apparent wholesale dismissal of all religious evidence is not a denial of the reasons why so many people are led to believe that the cosmic grandeur of our universe could not have come about by chance or without some guiding intelligence. As such, it is not necessarily illogical to reject the 'belief' of science, which seems to want to forward the idea that the complexity of our universe, with all the perceived diversity of life contained within it, emerged out of nothing some 13.7 billion years ago with no creator and no purpose.
So does God exist?
We know that we cannot really answer this question directly, in a yes/no manner, but this does not mean that we cannot consider the probability of God’s existence. If we simply accept this position for now, we can then turn our attention to the second issue by asking the question:
What might we infer about the nature of God from what we know of the universe?
It needs to be clarified that this is essentially a philosophical discussion, not a mathematical one, which starts with the premise that God might exist and then tries to ascertain the nature of a God, who is capable of creating the universe. It then tries to follow a line of logical thought through which we might then return to the more fundamental issue surrounding the probability of God’s actual existence. So proceeding with this line of approach:
Does God exist outside of time and space and therefore questions relating to God’s existence prior to the universe or how God came into existence are meaningless?
While this statement might appear to sweep many key issues under the carpet, let us initially accept that the nature of God, by definition, transcends our finite understanding of the universe. As such, we might proceed by simply accepting that it was part of God’s nature to want to create the universe and within God’s ability to do so. This said, it is not clear that this position can avoid the next question:
What was God’s purpose in creating the universe?
While any answer to such a question has to be more than a bit speculative, it might still be argued that the only option open to us is to try to pursue a line of logical reasoning. Based on logic and our own perception of human intelligence, it is difficult to imagine any sort of rational intelligence creating something, as complex as a universe, without any thought or purpose. If so, we either proceed by assuming that a thoughtful purpose existed or question whether God conforms to our idea of a rational intelligence. On this note, let us just stop to list the assumptions we shall pursue for clarity:
If God exists, it is an intelligence that exists outside the constraints of our perception of the physical universe and is therefore not constrained by the laws of physics. However, if this intelligence is rational, it must have had a purpose when creating the universe.
However, having got to a point, which is not really so far removed from the doctrines of many of today’s religions, our goal is to now try to gain some possible insight into the nature of God. One of the implications of the description above, i.e. that God exists outside the physical universe, is that our universe may not be the only universe and therefore God’s purpose may not be solely defined by our universe. This leads to the issue, which in theological terms might be defined as either theism or deism, although we might crudely scope this issue in terms of the next question:
How much attention would God give each universe, if more than one can exist?
Again, given that we cannot really address this question head on, let us try to take the line of questioning in a slightly different direction:
Are there any limits to God’s ability?
This seems to be a central point of both theological and philosophical debate, because if God is infallible and all-knowing, it then raises the issue as to what purpose is served, in the act of any creation, for an intelligence that already knows the answer to everything that will happen after creation. In essence, this argument has an analogous parallel to the idea of a deterministic clockwork universe in which all outcomes can be predicted in advance. Of course, if God is fallible, at least, in the sense that the outcome of the universe, and the life within it, is not deterministic, we might gain a small in-sight into the nature of God by pursuing this line of thought. In many ways, the first option appears to suggest that there would be no purpose to life within a universe in which every outcome is already known from the start and so, based solely on what amounts to a personal preference, the probability of a fallible God will be pursued by refining the previous question:
If God’s abilities are limited, does God seek to learn?
We have already assumed that a rational God must have had some sort of purpose, when creating the universe. So let us try to rationalise the purpose behind the creation of our universe:
If God has no peers, what might God seek to gain or learn from the universe?
In mathematics, it has been recognised that even deterministic systems can generate what appears to be chaotic or random outcomes. So, within the context of the current discussion, we might liken the universe to numerous deterministic systems, which although described by the laws of physics, ultimately yield unforeseen results. Again, before proceeding, let us keep track of the growing list of assumptions. Essentially, we are following a line of logic that God, if existing, is both rational and intelligent, but not all-knowing and therefore created the universe with the purpose to learn.
If so, what might this tell us about the nature of the universe?
Given that we obviously threw caution to the wind, almost from the outset of this particular discussion, we might consider the notion of the universe being analogous to the most complex computer simulation that could ever possibly be imagined, at least, by humanity. While this may seem a ridiculous idea, either the universe has no purpose, being the outcome of some form of quantum probability devoid of purpose and God’s presence or it has purpose implying some sort of intelligent design. While either may, or may not, be true, we shall initially speculate on the latter:
So, if the universe has purpose, what is its purpose to its creator?
In human terms, we recognise the power of computer simulations to teach us about the outcome of events that would otherwise be impossible to predict or even understand. Equally, while we may perceive the universe as having near infinite physical dimensions in both time and space, this may be illusionary from God’s position outside the universe, where it becomes analogous to the virtual space and rate of time within a computer simulation. If so, we might also have to consider how many ‘universe simulations’ could be in existence at once.
So, again, what might God seek to learn?
While realising that the mind of God might not be within our grasp to understand, the issue of intelligence seems to be an attribute that we might still reflect on. Almost by definition, a universe subject to intelligent design implies some sort of intelligent awareness and intelligence without any prospect of inquiry and expansion of knowledge would seem a fairly pointless and unimaginative existence.
So what might God wish to learn from the universe?
It is realised that this concept of God is acquiring far too many anthropomorphic overtones, but it seems that all manner of religious belief has proclaimed to know the ‘will of God’ or ‘ speak in the name of God’ and, by so doing, make inference about God’s nature. It is recognised that for many, the idea of some sort of after-life is a solace, especially for a life often filled with sadness, but history shows us that religion has all too often been manipulated by the powerful as a means of controlling the wider populace. So while we might wish to reject the notion of an anthropomorphic God, let us continue for the moment in the attempt to rationalise the nature of God based on the key characteristic of intelligence:
Was life in the universe a planned act of creation or an unforeseen event?
While the concept of time may be meaningless within the present discussion, science forwards the idea that our specific universe came into existence some 13.7 billion years ago. However, our solar system was only formed some 5 billion years ago, and subsequently life, in single cell form, appeared some 3.8 billion years ago. However, it would take another 3 billion years or so for multi-celled lifeforms to become established and start to diversify, followed by another 500 million years before the appearance of homosapiens signalled what we now consider to be sentient intelligent life. However, despite the apparent enormous size and age of the universe, science has found no obvious evidence of any other intelligent life within the proximity of our position within the Milky Way. Of course, various religions might not accept this timeline, but let us just accept that in a galaxy with 100 billion stars, and a universe with 100 billion galaxies, there may be some reasonable probability of other intelligent life. So, we might want to add to the previous question:
Does intelligent alien life also have a special place in God’s creation?
Now you don’t often see the subject of God and aliens raised in the same sentence. In fact, you might be forgiven for suggesting that God seems to have a very parochial outlook on life, at least, according to the scriptures underpinning most religions. For not only does God not seem to have much interest in any alien life, God also appears to be equally parochial about cultural groups here on Earth, having an apparent preferences for ‘a chosen people’. However, let us put this character trait to one-side and try to clarify what might actually be implied by ‘special’:
Would the emergence of intelligent life, no matter where or how feeble, attract God’s attention as its creator, which we have assumed to possess an inquiring intelligence?
It is the contention of most major religions that God is still actively involved in human affairs and some scriptures even suggest that we are made in God's image. Of course, this might presuppose that all intelligent alien life either has to look like us, or has little resemblance to God. However, there is some confusion around this inference in the scriptures, as theologically, God is said to have no physical form. Therefore, let us just assume that the nature of this likeness is simply a pale reflection of God’s intelligence.
So can any inference be made about the nature of God’s intelligence?
So while accepting that too much emphasis is being placed on the anthropomorphic nature of God, we are really only trying to ascertain the nature of God’s intelligence. For example, what might we infer about the nature of God, who appears to have ‘ordained’ that humanity must offer up prayers 5 times a day in order to show continued loyalty, gratitude, modesty and love towards God. Again, even if we decide to put this character trait to one side with the others, we cannot really avoid the next thorny character issue:
Did God deliberately create pain and suffering, if so, why?
If God doesn’t exist, we can explain pain as an evolutionary survival mechanism from which physiological and psychological suffering can manifest, i.e. it is an unfortunate by-product of survival and not an act of cruelty. However, the presence of a God, aware of all the suffering in the world is more difficult to reconcile with the religious idea of a caring God, even if we throw in the ambiguity of freewill. For example:
What sort of intelligence would deliberately create a system, by design, in which one species needs to kill and eat another in order to survive?
At one level, it almost seems easier to accept the indifference of the universe to pain and suffering because there is no cruel intent; rather than the idea of a God whose nature reflects either an inability to comprehend the suffering, an inability to do anything about it, or worse still, a callous indifference. Of course, some will wish to counter this negativity by citing all the beautiful things in the world along with the cosmic grandeur of the universe as a whole, as already outlined. However, this seems to be analogous to only looking at the skyline of a major city, while totally ignoring the poverty of the inner-city slums.
So, are we really the focus of God’s attention?
On the basis of logic alone, it seems difficult to explain why an all-powerful, all-knowing God would have so much trouble in making its existence known along with its requirements or aspirations for humanity without the apparent ambiguity that seems to always surround the unsubstantiated proclamation of prophets. You would think God either wants its existence within the universe to be unambiguously known or wishes to remain ‘incommunicado’ outside the universe. Therefore one might conclude that the ambiguity that does surround the existence of God in today’s world is probably a reflection of human delusion rather than being attributable to some introverted cosmic intelligence. Possibly we can put the implications into clearer focus:
If God did not exist, would humanity still have created a god?
This is not intended to be a frivolous sound-bite for it would appear that humanity has perceived the need for all manner of gods since the beginning of civilisation. One of the first requirements placed on the existence of a god, or gods, was to provide solace at the death of a loved one. Another need manifests itself in the need for reassurance that all the hopelessness, pain and injustice, so often found in this life, will be swept away in the after-life. Another, more Machiavellian need is the realisation that religious belief was a useful means of maintaining political power over an impoverished population. Of course, to start with, these needs were not addressed by the God of present-day Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but rather the many older gods that predate the idea of a monotheist god.
So why did the one ‘real’ God not simply establish its existence from the outset?
In some respect, we have probably taken this discussion as far as needed. As such, it might simply have to be accepted that some people will always need the solace, reassurance or power of belief. Even so, this belief is primarily based on an emotional need and constitutes no proof of God’s existence. However, because there are so many belief systems with so many conflicting descriptions of the nature of God(s), it becomes impossible for 'probability' to favour any of them.
But what about the probability of the existence of a God as a rational intelligence?
Because this has hardly been a rigorous analysis, any opinion has to be declared as subjective. This said, it does appear difficult to reconcile the nature of God as the intelligent designer of the universe based solely on the argument that ‘the universe is here, so somebody had to have made it’ school of thought. However, the attempt to second guess the nature of God, as a rational intelligence, has also turned out to be problematic, not only in comparison to our own perception of what is rational, but from the idea that God is not only active within the universe, at large, but within the daily lives of people on planet Earth. You might rightly point out that the line of logic adopted was far too anthropomorphic to be taken too seriously, but in many respects, this has always been the dichotomy for all accepted religions. Either God possesses some human-like qualities, which it is perceived forms a special bond between God and humanity or God is such an alien intelligence that it must appear as an abstract concept with little relevance or interest in the lives of mere mortals on an insignificant planet within the totality of the universe(s). Of course, we could have pursued a more metaphysical idea of God in which philosophers and scientists alike have tried to describe God, not as a separate intelligent entity outside the universe, but more in terms of God being the substance, or Logos, of the universe itself.
But does such a God provide humanity with any solace or any better answers?
As indicated, for many, God appears to hold the promise of an eternal afterlife and a reunion with loved ones previously lost. Belief in God also offers the hope of redemption and absolution from past sins, pain and suffering for those basically good of heart, where finally the strife of human life disappears into the light of eternal salvation. While it is an idea with obvious appeal, we are still left with one final question:
Is it true?
Probably not. However, despite my personal views, the footnote below is made
because it has to be recognised that not everybody wants to, or is
equipped to, look into an abyss created by scientific logic, which
some may argue is only based on probability, not certainty - see
Note of Reflection
Believers will never know if they are wrong;
while atheists will never know they are right.