William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 150 of 566

On The Probability God Exists


In the beginning, there was nothing. Then God said, “Let there be light”. And there was still nothing but you could see it.

In order not to make the reader sick with jealously, I will not tell him that I sit on the porch on a bright summer morning mere steps away from Lake Michigan—where Yours Truly frolics in the pristine waters daily—and where the blast of the Emerald Isle is shortly expected to announce its daily run to Beaver Island and where there is no other sound save water and waves.

No, that wouldn’t be nice; though the beauty of the scene should be all the proof of God’s existence required. Instead we examine in lazy fashion comments made by our friend Fran at his Alea Deum, in the post “On the certainty that God exists and why Bayesians should go π“. (I am a Bayesian and coincidentally I did go to pie last night; a local blueberry-raspberry creation which was heavenly.)

Fran begins with the excellent question “What is the probability that God exists?” The proposition of interest is “God exists”, and it is obvious he means the classic omnipotent, omniscient, etc. definition. From there our author sallies into his first error, a common one.

I should reply with “50%” or “p=1/2″. This is so because when Bayesians (The Objective Kind) have no information on a problem they use a plethora of principles in a Groucho style fashion to figure out a prior distribution to kick off Bayes’ Theorem machinery.

This is false in two separate ways; actually three. The proposition “Either God exists or not” is just like the proposition “Either X exists or not”. Both are tautologies, statements which are always true no matter what. Adding a tautology to any logical argument changes it not a whit; thus tautologies add no information and can’t be used to infer probabilities. Think of a die throw (we’d rather not; but let’s do it anyway). We could say, “A 6 will show or it won’t” but that is equivalent to “A 6 or a 2 will show or they won’t” and so forth; the partitioning is of no consequence, though it might seem it was.

Falsity two: if there is truly “no information on a problem” then no probability can be deduced. What is the probability the following proposition is true? “A rumfrom is a plorsteen.” You have no information. The tautology “A rumfrom is a plorsteen or it isn’t” adds nothing. Therefore no probability whatsoever can be deduced. It is in cases like these we should heed Wittgenstein and keep our traps shut.

Falsity troix: Groucho would have been funnier.

Fran next tries several attempts at putting “a prior” on the proposition “God exists.” This is unfortunate because the activity makes no sense (all those equations which follow have no life in them), though we graciously admit that thinking they might is forgivable. Subjective and “objective” Bayesians are always running around in the fashion of kids from Brooklyn with fresh cans of spray paint “putting priors” on things. Probabilities aren’t really theirs, they think, until they can be “tagged.”

All probability, like all other logical statements, can only be made conditional on certain fixed evidence, or premises. Textbook Bayesians slap priors on propositions (by whim as often as they do on evidence) because they always enter the problem too late, because they are too used to dealing with “parameters” without thinking about what these creations are and what they mean (here is an explanation). But since there is no parameter in the proposition “God exists”, it’s doubtful a Bayesian would attempt a prior.

A prior here would be some arbitrary (mathematical) probability pulled from the nether region of the mind. It would be based on nothing and take no meaning. It would be like saying the proposition Q is true (or probable) “just because” or “because I said so.” You would start and end with a prior, since if you had other relevant evidence (see below) you would have used it first. Priors float without basis or justification and do not “stick” to the proposition because they are not deduced from evidence relevant to the proposition.

If we’re really interested in the truth of “God exists” (and many aren’t), we should gather propositions which we believe true and which are probative. From these true and believed propositions we could deduce the probability of “God exists”. There would be no priors involved in any way.

Sufficient would be the five sets amassed by St Thomas Aquinas. Here they are done in video (I haven’t watched these; I Googled them as a service to my dear readers). And here is a series in words. And then see this series on the cosmological argument. And there are more besides these (other arguments, I mean).

Actually what we have are a not several arguments, but one grand one, all roads leading to the same inescapable destination. And all traveled without unnecessary mathematical baggage.

And now I won’t tell you that I’ll soon wander over to St Mary’s and from there to the shore (my swimsuit will be concealed cleverly by pants).



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Something From Nothing: Or, A Heavenly Fish Sandwich

But where is the tartar sauce?

So I was sitting on the porch by the lake reading a piece by Trent Horn on the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God, which is “Whatever begins to exist has a cause”, a premise no scientist disbelieves.

No: state that more clearly. Every scientist believes it1. And so does every non-scientist, though some of the latter have fun fooling around with the idea the premise is false. By some (as yet) unexplained miracle, these folks all have university jobs or were Detroit mayors. Never mind!

And speaking of miracles, this:

When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

Here we have a whole lot of something from plenty of nothing. Cause, please? Ockham didn’t cut himself shaving over the simplest explanation of God as grocer.

If we accept the first premise, the only way out of this, or any other miracle, is by dismissing the evidence. Something else happened other than that which was said to have happened. If not, then we’re stuck with God, so to speak.

Now for some “miracles”, this ploy is sufficient. What’s simpler to believe, the Lord Himself produced His blurry image on a tortilla so that it wouldn’t be smeared with refried beans, or that given enough chances burn marks on a flour patty will vaguely resemble a human face?

But a wave of the hand doesn’t work with the loaves and fishes. Too many people saw it happen, no contemporary sources dispute it, and alternate explanations are more of a stretch than Joe Biden giving up is Rogaine treatments.

The most common one is that, sure, the 5000 ate their reported fill, but they had the food concealed in their garments and only brought it out to fake a miracle. “Don’t tell all these people you have the lox, Morty, or they’ll want to share and we won’t have enough for ourselves. My, doesn’t Jesus’s beard shine in the sun? It fairly warms my heart. Oh, go ahead and show the fish, Mort. The rabbi’s speech put me in a generous mood. Wait…everybody else is brining out the biscuits, too. Now if we could only turn this water into wine, we’d have a party!” And never mind trying to get the stench of salted kippers, baked in the sun as you sit for a speech, out of your robes in the days before Clorox.

I’ve also see “mass hallucinations”, that staple of alternate explanations, tried. “Boy, Sarah, I feel full but I haven’t eaten. Only thing I can think of is that I must have had my fill of loaves and fishes. You too?” According to some skeptics the entire Bible is one long series of bad dreams set to paper. Strangely, these folks never invoke mind blur for bits of history favorable to their philosophy. But skip it.

Point stands that all these mental acrobatics take place only because of the obvious need to retain the first premise. And once you do, the rest of the kalam (almost) falls into place.


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1Incidentally, if you are a scientist and you too would like the fame and glory which follows the stating of preposterous statements as if they were true and seek to deny the premise, then none of your life’s work means a damn. For if the premise were false, whenever you say “X caused Y” (such as in a grant application) we would be entitled to say, “No, you are wrong. Nothing caused Y” and you would have to keep your yap shut.

Incidentally number two: God doesn’t need a cause because He didn’t begin to exist. He always was. “God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”


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From Claude Shannon To Demonic Mosquitoes To Bluegill

Must be something in the water.

Must be something in the water.

Here’s some information for you: this is a statue of Claude Shannon, tucked in-between two unfrequented buildings in tiny Gaylord, Michigan (most buildings are unfrequented here). Shannon’s the guy who made major contributions to cryptography and singlehandedly invented information theory, a feat made possible, dietitians speculate, because of his steady diet of bluegill, like these pictured below, fished from pristine, frigid Northern waters.

In an eerie coincidence, Yours Truly, who walked in the same woods, swam in the same lakes, and ate of the same flesh, followed a similar career path as Shannon, though with far less stunning results. But then I mixed my fish with plenteous quantities of black squirrel, pegged with a semi-automatic assault rifle (a .22; the squirrels surely saw it as an assault), and nobody ever claimed gamey meat was brain food. Incidentally, several of the tails adorned the back of my old ten-speed Schwinn.

The real reason for worms.

The real reason for worms.

The bluegills (eleven in total) yesterday gave their lives in a noble cause: nourishing the digestive systems to replenish the blood sucked away from our party by the hoard of mosquitoes released directly from hell onto the waters of Navajo Lake. At one point they were so thick that a cloud of them, by some fell collective will, attempted to make off with one of our smaller members. They would have made it, too, except that somebody’s cell phone went off with a Beatles ringtone and the bugs that didn’t flee committed suicide by smashing themselves into the side of the cabin. Since they had previously fed, you can image the vivid scene of carnage. It didn’t stop me from eating my s’more.

And a one and a two and a...

And a one and a two and a…

Speaking of the opposite of bad music, I gave you Ralph Schweigert and the Gaylord Community Band, pictured here with Kathy Chau née Dobrzelewski (pronounced just as it’s spelled), whose sister (or cousin?) I knew back at St Mary’s. I hadn’t seen Ralph for thirty years, but since the restraining order had expired I went up and said hi. The music stand blocked his escape so he was forced to say that if he knew I were coming he would have invited me to play. I demurred and noted that he probably wanted the band to sound good. He said that, back in the olden days, I added a lot to the band.

I agreed that this was true. I added volume: the band was at least louder when I played, my lungs of a capacity only exceeded by my ability to pontificate internetickly (yes, internetickly). Ralph wanted me to say hi to his wife before we left, but he couldn’t find her. I told him not to worry because my picture was probably still up at the post office if she wanted to recall me.

Incidentally, “Anyone who has at least a high school level proficiency on a traditional band instrument is eligible to become a member” of the community band.

Gaylord today, Lake Michigan and beautiful Charlevoix tomorrow!



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Good Gnus—PG Wodehouse Hunting Poem

No license required!

A northern Michigan summer! Time to venture forth out onto the waters and kill something to eat. I’m thinking pike. Wodehouse had gnus in mind.

When cares attack and life seems black,
How sweet it is to pot a yak,
Or puncture hares and grizzly bears,
And others I could mention;
But in my Animals “Who’s Who”
No name stands higher than the Gnu;
And each new gnu that comes in view
Receives my prompt attention.

When Afric’s sun is sinking low,
And shadows wander to and fro,
And everywhere there’s in the air
A hush that’s deep and solemn;
Then is the time good men and true
With View Halloo pursue the gnu;
(The safest spot to put your shot
is through the spinal column).

To take the creature by surprise
We must adopt some rude disguise,
Although deceit is never sweet,
And falsehoods don’t attract us;
So, as with gun in hand you wait,
Remember to impersonate
A tuft of grass, a mountain-pass,
A kopje or a cactus.

A brief suspense, and then at last
The waiting’s o’er, the vigil past;
A careful aim. A spurt of flame.
It’s done. You’ve pulled the trigger,
And one more gnu, so fair and frail,
Has handed in its dinner-pail;
(The females all are rather small,
The males are somewhat bigger).



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