By Nishant Arora
In his riveting book, Stephen D. Unwin uses a 200- year-old mathematical equation to ascertain the probability of god
Does God exist? This is probably the most debated question in the history of mankind. Scholars, scientists and philosophers have spent their lifetimes trying to prove or disprove the existence of the Almighty, only to have their theories crucified by other scholars, scientists and philosophers. Where the debate breaks down is in the ambiguities and colloquialisms of language. Can the question of God’s existence be definitively answered?
Meet Stephen Unwin, who received his doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Manchester, UK, for his research in the field of quantum gravity, and now lives in the USA. In his provocative and riveting book, The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation that Proves the Ultimate Truth, he tries to show how a mathematical equation, developed over 200 years ago by noted European philosopher Thomas Bayes, can be used to ascertain the numerical probability of God’s existence.
Applying the Bayes theorem to six evidentiary areas, namely: the recognition of goodness, the existence of moral evil, the existence of natural evil, intra-natural miracles, extra-natural miracles and religious experiences, the author analyses the data to reach the conclusion that the probability of God’s existence is 67 per cent. He does, however, assert that this number has a subjective element since it reflects his assessment of the evidence.
Unwin maintains that the concept of probability and faith are not often associated. One is the domain of logic and analysis, the other of spirituality and religion. Of course, there have been many philosophical and scientific investigations on the reconciliation of reason with religious belief. This book adds to the lot of available research, not as a guarded, careful, scholarly work but as a pragmatic, no-nonsense, bottom-line, result-oriented analysis.
Says Templeton Prize winner and author of The Mind of God and The Cosmic Blueprint, Paul Davis: “Unwin has pulled off the seemingly impossible—a profound and instructive discussion with God delivered in an entertaining, witty, and no-nonsense style. His quirky prose conceals a wealth of information about science, religion, and the grounds for rational belief. He bypasses the indulgent obscurantism so characteristic of contemporary theological writing and goes straight to the heart of the matter: Given the evidence, is belief in God a reasonable deduction?”
With a clarity that makes mathematical analysis lucid for even a non-mathematician to understand, Unwin provides a simple calculation to conclusively establish the ultimate truth. Excerpts from an email interview with Life Positive:
What is the probability of the existence of God for you personally?
My own assessment of the likelihood that God exists is high, though this belief is only partly based on the rational analysis of evidence. My book attempts to answer the question of how large a fraction of that belief is evidence-driven.
Not many have tried to apply theories of probability in matters of spirituality and faith. How relevant is it?
I think the probability theory applies to any circumstance involving uncertainty and uncertain beliefs. My idea was simply to capture the uncertainty in the language of mathematics.
Can the existence of God be reduced to mere figures?
I just wanted to figure out the odds. I don’t believe that the nature of God can in any sense be captured by numbers, but I think that evidence can be analysed in a mathematical scheme to assess the likelihood of God’s existence as a rational person might deduce it.
The book is tinged with humour….
I do hope it is taken seriously. The purpose of the humorous element was to make it more enjoyable. After all, books on mathematical themes or religious themes have the potential to be rather dull and I wanted to avoid that.
Is any convergence between probability and religious faith possible?
There is indeed a relationship between the two. In the Bayesian philosophy of probability, a probability is a formal expression of a degree of partial belief in the truth of some uncertain statement. Since faith is also a form of belief, it seems natural to ask how probability and faith might be related to one another. This is a theme to which much of my book is dedicated. I conclude that there are both important similarities and significant differences between the two.
Does spirituality have to do anything with your concept of probability?
No. I consider probability to represent that portion of belief that is dissociated from spiritual or religious modes of thought. I see faith as the spiritual counterpart to probability.
Does the book aim to bridge the gap between science and religion?
One theme in the book is that there need not be any conflict between science and religious beliefs. Of course, certain religious outlooks are defined in a way that ensures such a conflict, but I do not believe that religion is inherently anti-scientific.
You have had a rather religious upbringing. What made you realise the conflict between religion and science?
I noticed a widespread perception of this conflict upon arriving in the US 20 years ago, which seemed counter to my intuition that religious and scientific beliefs lacked the potential to be at odds with each other. I don’t believe that any element of my analysis is based on the notion that God’s existence compromises scientific methods or knowledge.
How has the religious world reacted ?
I have received a wide range of responses. In general, people who are certain of their positions (theist or atheist) tend to be less receptive to a book that argues from a position of uncertainty, though of course they are also more likely to share their views. Others have welcomed the ideas I explore, particularly those who accept that their belief in God’s existence is not based entirely on rational analysis of evidence. There are those who agree that logical uncertainty is not only to be tolerated, but is actually quite positive, since it is the thing that opens the gap for faith to play a role.
How do you define God because the probability analysis will depend on the kind of God we conceive?
The definition of God is of course critical to the analysis, and I devoted much of the book trying to establish what I mean by the word ‘God.’ In brief, I refer to the God of the major monotheistic faiths. Also, while I am aware that there are differences in belief between and within faiths about God’s attributes, I believe that these differences are outnumbered by the commonalities.
What is your next project?
I want to further explore the similarities and differences between faith-based and probability-based belief systems, as they might affect the lives of people. I am currently writing a fiction piece that explores these themes.
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