There is an often repeated claim that the existence of God is improbable. The purpose of this thread is to discuss and criticise this claim. The view to be presented here is that the claim is nonsense. However, this should not be taken to imply that the existence of God is probable, as that would also be nonsense, something that will hopefully become clear. There are two arguments associated with the claim that the existence of God is improbable and a common error between the two regarding the use of probability, each to be addressed separately.
The first argument takes its inspiration from an old argument against any theory that life originated by something other than design. In short, the probability that life could have come into existence by chance is miniscule, not unlike the probability that a tornado passing through a scrap yard would assemble a fully functional Boeing 747. The argument claims that the arrangement of living organisms is too complex to have been the product of chance, but -- like Paley’s watch -- instead betrays the work of a designer. Therefore, the existence of life would be almost inexplicable without the existence of a God.
There are numerous errors here, not least the remarkable leap from the existence of a designer to the existence of a God, never mind the God of Abraham. The equivocation is all too obvious. However, even if this assumption is granted then the existence of life need not be as improbable as the argument suggests. The process of mutation and selection radically increases the chance that complex life might emerge, and it is curious to happen upon the argument from design in a post-Darwin world*, especially given the sheer enormity of the universe.
In an ironic twist, this argument has been turned on its head by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and employed to argue that the existence of God is improbable. There is a dramatic quality which may not be unintentional. In short, God is a incredibly complex entity, more so than any organism that has ever existed, and so the probability that God would come into existence except by design is miniscule (and God did not evolve), even smaller than the probability that a tornado passing through a scrap yard would assemble a fully functional Boeing 747. Therefore, the existence of God is improbable.
There are three flaws to this argument to be offered here. First, for the majority of theists God is assumed to have existed before laying down the laws from which it would follow that some event or other is probable or improbable. In other words, the probability that a complex entity might come into existence is a function of the laws which govern the universe, but since God is the definer, creator, and mover of those laws the same probability estimates need not apply to God himself, no more than the laws of gravity or electromagnetism.
Second, there seems to be some confusion on the part of some authors about how rational argument is conducted. The argument is often presented like an attempt to catch theists in an error of reasoning. In short, if a theist employs the premise: 'the probability of complex life emerging without a designer is miniscule', then they are expected to actually believe that it is true and accept its consequences. The error here is in the assumption that a person must believe the premises which he employs in a critical argument, when he need not. In fact, critical arguments are characterised by having contradictory premises i.e. taking one or more propositions -- perhaps the beliefs of an opponent in debate -- and demonstrating them to be inconsistent**.
Third, even if the existence of God is improbable in the sense explained above, that does not mean that God does not exist. For example, consider the proverbial tornado that swept through a scrap yard to leave in its wake a fully functional Boeing 747. The apparent improbability of this event arises in absence of any initial conditions, and the improbability may decrease as we begin to specify the shape and content of the scrap yard and tornado. There could even be some configuration from which it is all but inevitable that Boeing 747 is constructed, and the alternative configurations may be inconsistent with the evidence. In other words, the abstract probability that God exists is irrelevant to someone who believes that the world is such that such an improbable event actually occurred, as they irregularly do.
For truth-seekers an improbable truth is always preferable to a probable falsehood.
To be continued...
* Take the following string of ten numbers between zero and ten.
The probability of obtaining this string from a random set of ten numbers between zero and ten is 1/100,000,000,000. However, if we introduce a selection procedure which preserves matches from one guess to the next, then the chance that we will get a match in fewer attempts is more likely. In fact, since there is a 1/10 probability of guessing the first number correctly and there are ten numbers, we might expect to get at least one match on the first guess.
Here the ninth number in each string matches and is now locked. The probability of obtaining matching strings from the next guess is 1/10,000,000,000. That is still very unlikely, but since there is a 1/10 probability of guessing the first number correctly and there are nine numbers, we might expect to get at least one more match after the next two guesses.
Here the second number in each string matches and is now locked. The probability of obtaining matching strings from the next guess has now been eroded to 1/1,000,000,000. That is once more very unlikely, but perhaps the it is now clear what this process achieves: a radical increase in the probability of matching the two strings. There simply needs to be some procedure by which mutations can arise (random guesses) and adaptive mutations can be retained (correct matches). However, the illustration presented here should not be taken as a description of precisely how evolution by natural selection occurs.
** The fallacy of the fallacy of the stolen concept, perhaps.