Saturday, 10 January 2009

There may.... or may not be.... a God

Having read about the Agnostibus, I felt that it was my duty, as a loyal Beaker Person and an accountant, to bring some precision to the proposal that "there probably isn't a God".

Let us set some parameters and define our terms.

Let us call the probabilty of there being a God p(G).

We cannot say with certainty that there is no God. Scientists are very clear on the difficulty of proving a negative.
Can we say that there is definitely a God? Probably not. Even if everyone in the entire world had a direct experience of God, there would be a slight chance of a mass hallucination.

So we can say with some confidence that p(G) is greater than 0, but less than 100.
So where could I get more precision? In the event I found it from Ariane Sherine - who inspired the whole campaign. On Radio 5 the other night she described the idea of Hell as "outdated". So from this I was able to derive what I will call the Sherine Principle - that the truth of an idea depends upon the number of people who believe in it. OK, according to this the world was flat until somebody actually sailed round it, but never mind... at least we have a working assumption.
So if the truth of a proposition depends upon the number of people who believe in it, clearly the possibility of God existing depends upon the number of people who believe in him/her/it. A reference to gives us the number of people who are members of each religion - a total of 92% of all people on earth. So, even reducing the figure slightly to allow for the Church of England, there is a 90% chance that God exists. In which case the bus's view is an underestimation. God probably does exist. We'll hedge around the fact that, according to the Sherine Principle, there's a 60% chance of God existing in England, a 100% chance in Saudi Arabia, and a 5% chance in Islington. After all, I don't make the rules up, do I?
But even if the probability of God existing were less than 50% - ie if God probably doesn't exist - what is the conclusion? You see, if you decide God "probably" doesn't exist, but that probably is only a 40% chance - you're giving up an eternity of potential bliss for a lifetime of slight (if that) happiness improvement. If I told you to open a box, and you had an 80% chance that it contained a million pounds but a 20% chance that it contained a poisonous gas - would you open it?

If you believe God doesn't exist and you behave as if that were the case, let us call your change in happiness for your lifetime compared to believing that God did exist dH. For the purposes of the argument, dH may be positive or negative - after all, you might "stop worrying" if you thought God didn't exist, or you might be really happy and fulfilled if you though (s)he did.
Now let us consider the risk/reward situation here. If you believe God exists and (s)he doesn't - versus if you believe God doesn't and it turns out to the contrary. And let us apply some statistics.
So in order for not believing in God to be (on a risk/reward basis) worthwhile:
dH * L * (1-p(G)) must be greater than H(h) * E * p(G)
  • where dH is the difference in happiness if you don't believe in God
  • L = the average human lifespan
  • p(G) = the probability of God existing
  • H(h) = the happiness of heaven compared to those in a state of hell/oblivion (again, taking into account the Church of England)
  • E = the length of Eternity.
And the problem is in E. E is the length of Eternity. And the length of Eternity is infinite. Which is really big.
So the only circumstance where the risk/reward is on the side of not believing in God, is where p(G) = 0 and dH > 0. And not only does the Sherine principle state that p(G) = 90% (give or take Anglicans), but the only situation where the benefits side of not believing in God outweighs the downside, is where p(G) = 0. Absolutely zero. Because anything more than that blows the equation across to the right hand side. And we know from the side of the bus that not even Richard Dawkins believes that p(G) = 0. If there is the slightest chance - no matter how small - of God existing, then the benefits of living as if God does exist outweigh those of living as if God doesn't. Even if (and it's unproven) people who don't believe in God are happier than those who do during their earthly life-times.
I asked the Archdruid what she thought of my equation. She told me to light a tea-light and try not to worry about it. It sounded like a good plan.


  1. Doesn't the Sherine Principle also imply that the older an idea is, the less likely it is to be true, because outdated?

    Therefore we can deduce specific dates for when certain things will become untrue, e.g. e=mc2, 2+2=4, and 'that's the wonder of Woolies'.

    At some point the statement on the atheist bus itself will pass it's true-by date, and therefore become false. All we need is an equation to know when that is, and whether it's likely to happen in our lifetime.

    If so, then we shouldn't stop worrying and start enjoying life, because after the true-by date we'll obviously need to start worrying again, and may as well save ourselves the bother by carrying on as we are.

  2. no more discussion, just light a t-light, throw a pebble or two and all will be well

  3. A couple of mirrors, some ethnic fabric, tastefully draped, and maybe a bowl of water to dangle fingers into along with the tealights and pebbles. And relax...


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