Small Probabilities, Big Decisions: Richard Dawkins and Empirical Evidence for God’s Existence

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In a more recent post, I provided Richard Dawkins’s 7-level Spectrum of Probabilities scale regarding God’s existence and gave the details he provides of what it means to be at what level on the Spectrum of Probabilities with regard to the existence of God. Richard Dawkins says that no man can say with absolute certainty that God does not exist, yet he chooses to be a philosophical naturalist and err on the side opposed to the low divine existence probability (as he says). It’s impossible to say with absolute certainty God does not exist, but Dawkins would rather err on the side of impossibility (absolute certainty that God does not exist) instead of on the side of low probability (that God exists). Here’s what he says:

It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so…Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 (Spectrum of Probabilities) is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Kindle Edition, page 73. Bold emphasis mine).

This doesn’t seem to be a smart thing to do. After all, a low probability is better than an impossibility. It is impossible that man can fly of his own physique, so I’d rather err on the side of low probability that I’d survive an airplane drop flying through the air with a parachute on my back than err on the side of falling through the air without any sort of flight helps — thinking that I’m a bird and “I have wings.” You wouldn’t want to see me fall without any aids at all.

The example of thinking I have wings and flying through the air with or without a parachute is an example of what this post is about: the idea that small probabilities are used to make big decisions. There’s a “small” probability that God exists, but Dawkins would rather err on the impossible and say “I’d rather live as though I’m certain God doesn’t exist, even though I can’t say He doesn’t with absolute certainty.” It just seems as though he’s choosing to live out an impossible claim rather than accept the low probability of God’s existence and live with it. Dawkins would rather deny the empirical evidence for God (the evidence of probability) and opt to live out something that can’t be true at face value.

Is the denial of the empirical evidence (mathematical probability) not contrary to reason for someone who, throughout his entire career, has dismissed Christians and other religious persons because they believe in God in the absence of evidence?

Small Probabilities, Big Decisions: Everyday Examples

Hurricane GIF. Credit: Giphy

Some would say, “Well, that sounds great, but where are the examples?” I have a few, actually. First, let’s say the weatherman (also known formally as the meteorologist) says that “there’s a 6% chance your county will be affected by a hurricane.” Someone living in Nebraska may not take the warning too seriously, but in Florida on the East Coast, any news of a hurricane is bad news. Someone in Florida would take the meteorologist seriously even if he or she gave a 1.5% chance of a hurricane. The reason? Florida has been hit with so many hurricanes that citizens living there consider the state hurricane-prone.

On the East Coast in states such as North Carolina and Virginia, for example (where hurricanes aren’t as common as they are in Florida), residents will still take a 6% hurricane risk seriously and stock up on bottled water, food, batteries, and flashlights to plan for the “small probability” of a particular hurricane event.

What about the chance of rain? Most individuals don’t want to find themselves caught in a rainstorm, so they’ll take a rain coat or jacket even if the probability of a rain event is extremely small. If you go outside your door tomorrow, you could have a 7% chance of getting in a car accident — which is small compared to the 93% probability that you won’t have one. And yet, would you still not buckle your seat belt, make sure your tires aren’t flat, put gas in your car tank, and double-check your brake and steering wheel performance before getting on the road?

Obamacare is a current political topic that has great interest from the political left, right, and middle. After all, there are millions of Americans with low-cost, affordable health care that receive medical treatment and keep medical costs low. How many individuals signed up for Obamacare because, despite the “low probability” that some of them would ever need insurance, they’d rather be safe than sorry?

Medical decisions also involve small probabilities that lead to big decisions. If your doctor tells you, “there’s a tumor in your left leg, but it’s not cancerous,” would you keep that tumor in your leg — or remove it to prevent a cancer flare-up in the future? You may never experience that cancer flare-up, but you will use the small probability that you could get cancer to request that your doctor surgically remove the benign leg tumor if possible. You can’t see the future, but the human instinct has always been to “prepare for the worst and expect the best.” A low probability of danger is still danger, and a low probability of risk is still risk.

Here’s an example for the smartphone-owning crowd: let’s say that you’ve been buying smartphones for 4 or 5 years and have never (and I mean, NEVER) dropped your phone in water or on concrete and cracked your smartphone display. While your track record with smartphones is superb, you still have that thought in your mind that something with your phone could go wrong — and you don’t want to chance it. The probability that you’d damage your phone is small, but computers (yes, the smartphone is a “PC,” a “pocket computer”) can go wonky at any moment.

You’d rather use the low probability of smartphone damage (whether in software or hardware) to purchase insurance at an additional monthly cost than to forfeit it and spend another $800+ for a new smartphone should everything fall apart (figuratively and literally).

Lottery Powerballs. Image Credit: News-Press

My last example comes from those who gamble (a gambling example is more in line with probabilities and mathematical methods; gambling probabilities are often discussed when mathematical probabilities are in question in mathematical textbooks). Let’s say you’re a gambler, you’ve gambled many times over the years and lost. Sure, you’ve won a few dollars here and there (maybe $100 at one point five years ago), but you’ve never had a lucky streak in playing the lottery.

And then, you see that the lottery jackpot sits at an estimated $100 million. You think to yourself, “My chances of winning are slim,” but despite that low probability, you will still choose to play because of the possibility that you could win that $100 million (there’s no guarantee that you’ll win, and the probability of winning is low, but you’re still hopeful).

In the lottery example, you’re well within reason to play the lottery despite the small probability of winning. I’m not endorsing the lottery here, but it seems obvious that while you don’t have any reason except the hope of winning to play the lottery (never had a lucky streak), you are well within reason to buy a ticket and play the game. I was recently told of someone who bought a $5 scratch-off ticket (yes, a ticket that cost only $5) and won $250,000. This individual has plenty of money already, but it goes to show that even small probabilities can pay off — literally.

Richard Dawkins has said that he cannot say with absolute certainty that God does not exist, but he then turns around and says “no” to God, living as an atheist as though he is absolutely certain God does not exist. This is quite contrary to reason. If there’s even a low probability that God exists, then shouldn’t Dawkins err on the side of the optimistic and search out the one true living God? Living as though God doesn’t exist is a way of saying, “I don’t know with absolute certainty but I’ll live like it anyway.” Is this not an illogical position to take?

Yes, Richard Dawkins and all atheists live by faith in that improbability of which Dawkins speaks: they can’t know with unshakable conviction that God doesn’t exist, but they’re willing to live life without God regardless. They deny that small probability of God’s existence (as he claims). If atheists can live like this, then what makes Christians irrational should they choose to believe in God in the absence of absolute certainty, despite the possibility that there is no God — and despite the small probability (Dawkins’s words) that there is a God?

If there is a possibility that God exists, how can one merely “live my life on the assumption that he is not there,” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, pg. 73) as Dawkins says in his book? It’s the equivalent of saying, “The probability that I’ll get in a car accident is small, so I won’t wear a seat belt, or check my brakes, steering wheel, air bag, or engine just to be safe.” If Richard Dawkins is a scientific naturalist and a philosophical naturalist, and the empirical and observable is all that exists, then doesn’t it make sense to live by the “low probability” that God exists rather than live by the “improbability” that He doesn’t?