Dawkins needs to show some doubt
Scientists work in a field full of uncertainties. So how can some be so sure God doesn’t exist? asks Stephen Unwin
Uh, what? Two things immediately come to mind: certainty isn’t a claim Dawkins makes anywhere, and…Stephen Unwin???!? Unwin is a remarkably silly man, as anyone who has read his book, The Probability of God will know. Unwin goes on with some very strange inferences.
It is clear that on the question of God’s existence Dawkins comes down firmly on the side of certainty. His dismissal of Pascal’s wager (which is that, given the uncertainty, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by belief in God) is a stark indication of his commitment to certainty.
Pascal’s Wager, one of the worst arguments ever for the existence of gods, is not rejected because atheists are “certain” that god doesn’t exist, but because it says nothing about a truth claim (I have “everything to gain and nothing to lose” by believing a million dollars will fall into my lap today, but that does not mean there is cause to believe it will happen), and because it presumes a different kind of certainty—that you will be rewarded for believing without evidence in unsubstantiated claims. What if God exists, but he looks exactly like James Randi, and casts all the woo-woos into hell for their refusal to use their brains? There are a multitude of possible variations in the godly reaction, and claiming that we should gamble without information on your interpretation rather than mine is baseless.
But otherwise, it’s as if Unwin hadn’t even bothered to read as deeply as the chapter titles in the table of contents. Case in point: chapter four is titled “Why there almost certainly is no God” [my emphasis]. Dawkins discusses at length why there is no certainty, and points out that there is no reason or evidence given for supporting any one particular, peculiar religious belief.
And what of Unwin? For those fortunate enough to have so far gone through this life without being subjected to the awesome foolishness of Unwin’s Bayesian analysis, here is Dawkins’ criticism of his book:
Unwin is a risk management consultant who carries a torch for
Bayesian inference, as against rival statistical methods. He
illustrates Bayes’ Theorem by taking on, not a murder [Dawkins has just used the board game “Clue” as an example of logically working through to a conclusion from evidence], but the
biggest test case of all, the existence of God. The plan is to start
with complete uncertainty, which he chooses to quantify by assign-
ing the existence and non-existence of God a 50 per cent starting
likelihood each. Then he lists six facts that might bear on the
matter, puts a numerical weighting on each, feeds the six numbers
into the engine of Bayes’ Theorem and sees what number pops out.
The trouble is that (to repeat) the six weightings are not measured
quantities but simply Stephen Unwin’s own personal judgements,
turned into numbers for the sake of the exercise. The six facts are:
- We have a sense of goodness.
- People do evil things (Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein).
- Nature does evil things (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes).
- There might be minor miracles (I lost my keys and found them
- There might be major miracles (Jesus might have risen from
- People have religious experiences.
For what it is worth (nothing, in my opinion), at the end of a
ding-dong Bayesian race in which God surges ahead in the betting,
then drops way back, then claws his way up to the 50 per cent mark
from which he started, he finally ends up enjoying, in Unwin’s
estimation, a 67 per cent likelihood of existing. Unwin then decides
that his Bayesian verdict of 67 per cent isn’t high enough, so he
takes the bizarre step of boosting it to 95 per cent by an emergency
injection of ‘faith’. It sounds like a joke, but that really is how he
proceeds. I wish I could say how he justifies it, but there really is
nothing to say. I have met this kind of absurdity elsewhere, when I
have challenged religious but otherwise intelligent scientists to
justify their belief, given their admission that there is no evidence:
‘I admit that there’s no evidence. There’s a reason why it’s called
faith’ (this last sentence uttered with almost truculent conviction,
and no hint of apology or defensiveness).
I can see why Unwin might be motivated to respond to Dawkins’ book, but alas, I don’t see any reason why anyone should regard Unwin as anything but yet another goofy crank.