Just Above Sunset
March 14, 2004 - God in the Spreadsheet

Home | Question Time | Something Is Up | Connecting Dots | Stay Away | Overload | Our Man in Paris | WLJ Weekly | Book Wrangler | Cobras | The Edge of the Pacific | The Surreal Beach | On Location | Botanicals | Quotes

Kevin Drum over at CalPundit.com led me to this.

Odds on that God exists, says scientist
Stewart Maclean, Catherine Bolsover and Polly Curtis, The Guardian (UK), Monday March 8, 2004

Yeah, here and on my web log I linked to a lot of things and made fun of Mel Gibson’s movie quite a bit.  But now it seems the odds are I will roast in hell for it.  Mel gets to heaven, probably, and I don’t.  Why? 


A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists. 

Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being.  Bayes' Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation. 

The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being. 


Ohio?  Really? 

And what does this Brit in Ohio use to work out his assessment? 

Factors that were considered included recognition of goodness, which Dr Unwin said makes the existence of God more likely, countered by things like the existence of natural evil - including earthquakes and cancer. 

Wait a minute, Steve!  “Goodness” makes the existence of God more likely? 

Let’s think about that.  Remember the Crusades?  Remember the Inquisition?  Remember the Thirty Years War?  Yeah, well, looking at it the other way, smiting the godless, torturing people and mass slaughters may be a form of goodness to some.  I suppose that depends on your perspective.  Making sure “bad folks” die in excruciating pain has, as a very good thing, many adherents. 


It seems one could argue equally well that goodness proves that God doesn’t exist at all, or if God exists, He (or She or It) isn’t particularly effective.  This God business has indeed caused a lot of pain and suffering, and I’m not sure pain and suffering are inherently good.

Goodness is then a slippery term.  Ask Martha “It’s a good thing” Stewart.  Hell, some people (like me) think anchovies are “good.”


The assumption here is that God is inherently good.  Inherently? 

I remember when first encountering Dickens or Shakespeare my English students would whine, “But that’s boring.”  And I would then patiently explain that they were bored, which wasn’t at all the same thing as Macbeth or Great Expectations being intrinsically and inherently boring, or not.  No written work was boring as such.  There was no such inherent quality.  But there was one’s reaction – “This bores me” – and that is quite valid.  Of course. 

I suspect this Unwin fellow is confusing reaction to something with its inherent qualities.  Perhaps he should read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where Robert Pirsig chats about such things, bringing in the Pheadrus dialogs of Plato. 

That seems unlikely.  This fellow would have us use Excel spreadsheets, not philosophy.


The unusual workings - which even take into account the existence of miracles - are set out in his new book, which includes a spreadsheet of the data used so that anyone can make the calculation themselves should they doubt its validity.  The book, The Probability of God: A simple calculation that proves the ultimate truth, will be published later this month. 


Why am I reminded of Douglas Adams and the question at the core of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where, of course, the answer the meaning of everything turns out to be… forty-two? 

Unwin says he’s interested in bridging the gap between science and religion.  And he argues that rather than being a theological issue, the question of God's existence is simply a matter of statistics. 


"On arriving in America I was exposed to certain religious outlooks that were somewhat of an assault upon my sensibilities - outlooks in which religion actually competes with science as an explanation of the world," he said. 

"While I could not be sure, having slept through most of the cathedral services I had attended during secondary school, this did not seem like the version of faith I had remembered.  In many ways, this project was for me a journey home - a reconciliation of my faith and education."


Yeah, well, Unwin, we all have our issues. 

So the probability that God exists is sixty-six percent, and Unwin maintains that he is personally around ninety-five percent certain that God exists.  Good for him. 

Two in three chances God is out there.  For this guy a nineteen in twenty chance. 

Fine.  Suppose we grant this, even without downloading the spreadsheet Unwin has devised. 

Does this not then beg the question, if there is a God, probably, what is God doing these days?  What is this business with war and death and all the rest?  Is God messing with us?  He, or she, or it has an odd sense of humor that only Mel Gibson understands fully?  Perhaps so. 




Rick Brown, one of my regular readers – the “news guy” – has a reaction.


Wait!  Did you say this guy "works as a risk assessor in Ohio"?  Hey, he's in the (pardon the expression) goddam insurance business!  What's he trying to do, put some statistical bite into all those "Act of God" clauses?

But forget God, right now.  I need Dr Unwin to run the numbers on the probability of the existence of the Tooth Fairy!  My son lost another tooth today, and he just now put it under his pillow and is not nearly ready to doze off just yet.  So with me having nothing smaller than a twenty in my wallet, not to mention really wanting to "sleep in" tomorrow morning, an actual real live Tooth Fairy, preferably one carrying cash money in small denominations and her own supply of number-ten envelopes, would really come in handy right now!

Five will get you ten, though, that Dr Unwin won't give the Tooth Fairy that generous 50/50 head start he grants to God.

Not a bad strategy, when you think about it, since without that handicap, God would come in at a pretty paltry and unimpressive 17% (that's 67% minus 50%), which is less than one chance in five!  I'd imagine this could really piss off just about any Supreme Being, at least enough to doom Dr Unwin to an eternity of calculating actuarial tables in Hell using a broken crayola instead of a spreadsheet program.

All things considered, crossing your maker (assuming he exists, even if there's really only a 17% chance of it) could end up being very much worse than dissing some whoosy Tooth Fairy, so it's probably best to play it safe.

Then again, I'd bet if there's one thing this "risk assessor" guy is trained to do, it's how to play it safe.

Yes, one is reminded of "Pascal's Wager."  Pascal essentially argues that to believe in God is the best bet because if God exists, you'll go to heaven and avoid hell.  If you don't believe in God, you might lose all this.  If God does not exist, you'll have nothing to lose.  So it's better to believe in God than not to. 


I’m not sure that’s very comforting. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....