What are the Odds?

probability-diceI’ve found Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism” to be much more reasonable than the more popular atheist books. In discussing what he calls “the inductive cosmological argument”, he points out a real difficulty in claiming that the existence of the universe is, by itself, evidence for God.

That is, it is very difficult to calculate the background probability of the universe existing (which would be necessary for an inductive argument). Of course, this doesn’t apply to the previous arguments mentioned (as they were deductive). Still, I agree with him insofar as that point goes.

But that isn’t terribly far, because the argument isn’t simply that the universe is evidence for God’s existence. Rather, like most inductive arguments, it is an inference to the best explanation. Swineburne’s claim in making the argument is that God is a better explanation of the existence of the universe than the secular alternatives.

Given the fact that, by Mackie’s own admission, the atheistic explanation of the universe is that it exists for literally no reason whatsoever, this seems a rather obvious point. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could disagree with it.

But Mackie does disagree.

He sees nothing strange at all about a “just because” answer to the question (which I find astonishing), and argues that divine creation is very unlikely. But this seems another shifting of his position to fit the momentary need. After all, he’s just finished arguing that we have no way of knowing the background probability for things like the origin of the universe. One is left wondering how he can know the background probability of a creation event–particularly before deciding whether or not God exists.

This being the case, he seems to have undermined his own argument.

Of course, he does raise a similar concern of the theist’s position. He claims that the omni-attributes of God are themselves infinities, which would contradict other arguments for God’s existence.

But this is very strange–unless one believes that all such arguments must work in order to accept that God exists. Rather, if even one of them is sound, then we must accept the conclusion. As such, this is no attack on the inductive argument; he should have mentioned this when discussing the Kalam.

And, in defense of the Kalam, it rejects the idea of collections containing infinite numbers of discrete parts, which is something altogether different than God’s attributes, which are one. That being the case, I don’t find it persuasive, even then. But the bigger point is that it is irrelevant to the argument he’s actually discussing.

No inductive argument is, in the end, certain. But it does seem that theism is a better fit to the data we have than the complete lack of an explanation offered by proponents of atheism.

But, Mackie has something of an inductive argument of his own–against the existence of God. I’ll get to that next.

10 responses to “What are the Odds?

  • Mertavius

    the way you approach things is refreshing, are you by any chance a atheist

  • lotharson

    “That is, it is very difficult to calculate the background probability of the universe existing”

    The problem is not that it is difficult, the problem is that it is meaningless.

    To my mind Bayesian epistemology is pretty dubious in situations which cannot be related to frequential probabilities.

    And the probability values are nothing more than subjective brain states with no relations to the real world.
    Let us suppose that the probability of God’s existence is 20%, 40% or 70%?

    Does that mean that (accordingly) God exist in 20%, 40% or 70% of all cases?
    Just stating it sounds quite silly.

    I agree that Mackie was one of the greatest atheistic philosopher who has ever lived.

    Dawkins and Harris are buffons in comparison.

    Cheers from Europe.

    • Debilis

      Greetings to you as well!

      I definitely have my reservations about the issue of probability. And, yes, I tend to agree with the idea that the ontological probability of God is either 0 or 1. But I see no reason why, in theory, one couldn’t point to an epistemological probability of God’s existence, which is clearly what Swineburne is discussing.

      And I definitely think that the point that theism is a better explanation than “there is no explanation” is valid.

      But, arguments aside, best to you out there.

      • lotharson

        Intuitively speaking, yes.
        But I don’t believe that numerical probabilities are meaningful if they concern philosophical questions.


        • Debilis

          I definitely don’t see any point in trying to pretend that we can assign a mathematical value to this, agreed.

          But I do think that it is more than intuitive by the common sense of the term. If, however, you meant it in the formal sense of a rational intuition as used by philosophers, I’d completely agree.

          It does seem to me to be one of the rational intuitions that we should accept.

    • Frank Morris

      I really can’t agree that mathematical odds are meaningless.

      I do agree that they can be difficult to ascertain, but reasonable estimates can be made and we can always err on the conservative side to get a result and then calculate a second time erring on the liberal side and find a plausible range of probabilities.

      Difficult, yeah sure, but meaningless? Hardly.

      To put things succinctly, if your theory is statistically impossible, then you are wrong. That’s how meaningful calculating odds are.

      What is meaningless is claiming that random chance causes something, and yet never bothering to calculate the odds. The Darwinian Fallacy comes to mind.

      When things seem impossible to happen by chance, your intuition is probably correct. Still, if challenged, impossibility can certainly be confirmed through mathematical calculations.

      Either way, the only thing that is meaningless on this topic is to claim luck as a cause when it is not possible.

    • Frank Morris

      lotharson, after re-reading your post I think I might understand the point of confusion. I really didn’t understand your example:

      “Let us suppose that the probability of God’s existence is 20%, 40% or 70%?

      Does that mean that (accordingly) God exist in 20%, 40% or 70% of all cases?”

      I don’t know why you have three different numbers or what you mean by “cases”, but the fact that you are using numbers in that range might explain the confusion.

      If the odds come out to be 20% to 70% or anything even remotely close, then there really is no meaning to that. If the odds of a theory being correct are one out of ten, then of course it could well be true, or even if it is one in a million, although it becomes much less credible.

      But if we are talking about odds of 1 out ten to the 400th power, it is time to give up on the science-stopping random chance guesswork and find a real answer.

      Odds of creating even one functional protein through Darwinistic luck was calculated at 1 out of 10 to the 4500th power. To put this in context, there are only 1 times 10 to the 90th particles in the universe. The great mathematician Emile Borel considered that odds of 1 out of 10 to the 50th power was logically presumed to mean that the event did not happen by chance.

      Impossible is impossible and the numbers don’t lie. The one thing we can eliminate in any explanation of life’s biogenesis, evolution or any aspect of life as we know it, is random happenstance.

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