Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I Don't Believe in God

Before I get to my reasons, I better address something else first: why I’m even posting this. Part of it is because it took a lot of time and research to get to where I am now, and by being open with what I’ve learned, it might help someone wondering about these issues. It’s also out of the hope that if believers see that there are respectable, logical reasons for coming to the conclusion I’ve come to, then maybe they’ll respect atheists like myself as being genuine and sincere in our search for truth, and as being good people.

The first thing anyone asks me when they find out I don’t believe in God anymore is: “So, what does your wife think about that?” She obviously wasn’t thrilled when I decided to come out as an atheist, but she loves me and wants to make things work in spite of our religious differences. She respects my views enough to let me publish them and represent them, and I respect her views as well.

Now to the meat of the post: why I don’t believe in God. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’m going to argue that the existence of God is a very extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence. To make that more clear, I’m going to put it in terms of Bayesian statistics:

Pr(God exists given evidence) = Pr(evidence given God exists) x Pr(God exists) / Pr(evidence)

“Pr” means probability. What I mean by “evidence” is the claimed evidence that God exists. Pr(God exists) means the pre-existing probability that God exists, prior to examining the evidence. Some people seem to think that this probability is entirely subjective, and personally determined. I believe that it can be determined more objectively.

The chances of something complex spontaneously self-assembling is very low. For example, you would not expect that junk thrown in a junkyard would just happen to form a Boeing 747. The traditional Christian view is that God has always existed, so atheists have considered the likelihood of His existing as being the same as the likelihood of His spontaneously coming into existence. Some Mormons, based on some statements of Joseph Smith’s, think that our God was created by a previous God, who was created by another God, and so on infinitely back through time. It’s basically pushing things back in time but doesn’t resolve the central question of how Gods first came to be, so I’d calculate the probability of the first God existing in the same way. The most reasonable suggestion would be that Gods originally arose through evolution, but then you’d still be unnecessarily postulating a whole lot of complexity in that case too.

The question then becomes: is God necessarily very complex? What we know about intelligence indicates that all intelligence arises from very complicated structures. We are the most intelligent thing we know of, and we do our thinking with our brains. Our brains are made up of something like 100 billion neurons, connected together with around 100 trillion synapses. Researchers have determined how individual neurons work, and which areas of the brain are responsible for which tasks.* We know this because when a certain area of the brain is damaged, it dysfunctions in a predictable way and because when people do certain things, electrical activity spikes in certain areas in a predictable way. We can also observe which chemicals tend to transmit a certain type of information, and how adding drugs can affect our thinking, even our moral thinking. This evidence leads me to the conclusion that our brain does our thinking, not a spirit, and that our intelligence is the result of the very complex organization of our brains. There is no example of intelligence that does not arise out of complexity. I conclude that if God exists, his intelligence also arises out of very complex organization.

There is another reason I think God must be complex: He must follow the Law of Conservation of Energy. You might assume that God can violate the Laws of Physics, but there’s a good reason to conclude that He can’t. Any existence with predictability has laws. In other words, a law can only be a law if is able to predict things, and it can’t predict anything unless it includes point-of-view invariance. Physicists can derive what laws must exist if point-of-view invariance is maintained, and they include Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Law of Conservation of Energy, and even the special theory of relativity. This means that these laws will exist not only in our universe, but in every universe with laws. It also means that God did not create these physical laws, but rather he is subject to them.**

Now that we understand that God must be subject to the Law of Conservation of Energy, let’s consider some of the things he’s supposed to be able to do. We’ll start with hearing and answering prayers. He would have to be aware of the state of each person’s brain. That is, he’d have to know the physical state of the 100 trillion synapses in each of the brains of the 6 billion people on the planet, and exactly how to change the state of those synapses to communicate the information he wants to communicate in order to answer a person’s prayer. That can’t be done with electromagnetic waves, so we have to assume he’s using a method of data transmission currently unknown (even theoretically) to physicists. The main point, though, is that it takes energy to change the states of people’s brains, and retrieving data, processing it, and sending it back by making those changes while observing the Law of Conservation of Energy would require a complex structure in the same way that our brains and bodies are complex structures.

Now let’s go back to that statistical equation I put at the beginning of the article, which I’ll repeat here for convenience:

Pr(God exists given evidence) = Pr(evidence given God exists) x Pr(God exists) / Pr(evidence)

All of the arguments I’ve stated aren’t about observing evidence, they’re about computing the likelihood that God exists before considering the evidence for his existence, Pr(God exists). I’ve concluded this probability is very low, something on the order of 1/(10^80). That’s a pretty darn small number. Now let’s say someone is able to predict something very specifically, say, the civil war and where it started. If God didn’t exist, the likelihood of their being able to predict that thing is very low. We’ll say it’s 1/10000. That’s Pr(evidence). If God does exist, the likelihood is much higher, say, 1. That’s Pr(evidence given God exists). When I plug these numbers into my equation, I conclude that given this evidence, the likelihood of God existing, Pr(God exists given evidence), is about 1/(10^76). In other words, it’s not even close. The alleged evidence isn’t even remotely close to the order of magnitude that would be necessary to justify belief in Him.

Update: As some people have noted, Pr(evidence) and Pr(God exists given evidence) are really the probabilities of every outcome of every experience that could have resulted in evidence for God, all multiplied together. Of course that makes them fairly subjective, so I respect the opinions that maybe they are far different than I've stated here.

The basic conclusion from this whole discussion is that if the nature of reality is what it appears to be according to science, then God almost certainly doesn’t exist. The alleged evidence isn’t even close to substantiating belief in a God that exists in the same type of reality that we exist in. So I conclude that all arguments that God exists have to center around asserting that the nature of reality is totally different than what science has revealed.

Now if you are comfortable with that, or if you think that some of my logic is shaky, or just plain would rather believe in God because you’re happier that way and just don’t care about these types of arguments, there’s nothing wrong with that. The whole purpose of this article is just to gain respect. I hope that I can at least convince some people that atheists have good reasons to not believe in God, even if they disagree with those reasons. I didn’t lose my faith in God because I was sinning. I was doing my best to follow the commandments and do everything asked of me by the church. It wasn’t because I found it more convenient (I didn’t), or was offended by someone at church (I wasn’t), or would rather God didn’t exist (I don’t), or wasn’t receptive to the spirit. I’ve had very powerful spiritual experiences. But I still lost my faith in God because I found the logic of standard atheist arguments to be convincing. So regardless of what you believe, I hope that you can accept me and my fellow atheists as genuine and sincere seekers of truth.

* My understanding of Neuroscience comes from having read this book:

The point of the book is that there is strong evidence in the organization of our brains that they are the product of evolution, but the evidence it presents is equally applicable to demonstrating that our brains do our thinking, not a spirit.



Anonymous said...

Well written, Bennion! Thanks for sharing. :) I commend you and your wife working together and respecting each others' beliefs (and lack of). My husband and I are in the same boat, but I'm the non-believer.

"If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." - Albert Einstein

Anonymous said...

PS: I was thinking about this scene a few days ago. Excellent timing!

Bennion said...

I have seen that before! It actually reminds me of a really funny Dilbert episode about a mythical "Todd" that I thought was pretty funny:

gavinomics said...

Have you read my posts on "Things that God Cannot do" ?

Part 1:
Part 2:

It is a purely LDS perspective.

Anyway, Can you clarify a few points about your argument?

1. What is your criteria for evidence?

2. You said, "All of the arguments I’ve stated aren’t about observing evidence, they’re about computing the likelihood that God exists before considering the evidence for his existence."

Since it is meaningless to assume that something exists without evidence (like gremlins or the tooth fairy), how is it meaningful to try to compute the existence of something before considering evidence?

Judged by empirical standards has your equation ever been used to predict the existence of something? In other words can you give evidence that your equation is empirically valid?

3. Do you believe the universe has always existed?

Jalynne said...

My only question is, how do you explain your "very spiritual experiences" as mentioned above if you believe your brain does all the thinking and not a spirit?

Kyle said...

I would like to respectfully make a mockery of the figures that were used in the probability quasi-equation. (Equality beginning in question due to the lack of evidence that such probabilities exist, pun intended) Do you realize the comparison of numbers that was made? The same term "very low" is used to describe probabilities of 1/10^5 and 1/10^80. As a lover of extremely large numbers I am offended and frightened they were both categorized as such. They are 75 orders of magnitude different!! Maybe using the inverse and saying 10,000 is very big and saying 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000 is very big helps show the slight difference.

Also wouldn't the divisor of the equation require the product of all known evidences, not just one singular event? It's been a while since I've done statistics but a quick internet-refresher says the probability of two independent events occurring is the product of the probabilities, i.e., P(AB)=P(A)P(B). I'm not going to say what one would and wouldn't choose as evidences since that would be up for debate anyhow.

(I see the latter point was somewhat addressed in the facebook comments, sorry for the repeat but I think it's needed)

Bennion said...

Gavin, I'll read your blog posts very soon. First I'll respond to your questions.

1. I'm pretty open on criteria, so it just depends on what someone brings up. I'm happy to discuss all potential evidence.

2. A rough estimate of how likely something is helps determine how much evidence should be necessary to accept it. For example, in science, if a proposed theory fits well with current scientific thinking, less evidence is demanded than if it substantially changes current thinking. I personally don't think the idea of God fits in with our scientific understanding of the universe, so more evidence should be demanded.

3. The universe came into existence at the big bang, but I don't think anybody knows how things came into existence in the first place. God doesn't resolve that question, and the approach of physicists is too complicated for me to understand.

Jalynne, when I say "spiritual experiences," I mean emotionally powerful experiences that occurred in the context of the church.

Kyle, I'm glad you caught the ridiculousness of my number descriptions. They're really a joke, I'm glad someone got it :)

Also, you're very right about about how it should be the product of probabilities of all evidences. Technically, Pr(evidence given God exists) and Pr(evidence) should be the products of the probability of the outcome of every "experiment" that has taken place in your life. Obviously, this involves a great deal of subjective estimation that renders every conclusion somewhat personal.

gavinomics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gavinomics said...

Sorry this is so long...Hopefully it will be worth your time.

2. The evidence and mathematical models question: Can you give me a specific example? To be honest, I don't understand the complex math that you have utilized. But isn't it the case that math is pretty useless until one can plug in real data? I am fairly well read in popular books about science. I can't think of an example that really fits your explanation of science here. My understanding is that real-science (as opposed to pseudo science) operates by first systematically collecting observed data from reality and then makes inferences based on the facts. Then the inferences (or theories) are validated or discredited as we find more evidence. The way you have described it, it seems that your mathematical inferences somehow come before the facts altogether. Can you clarify that for me?

3. The beginning of the universe question: This question is key to find out where you are coming from. I also agree that God does not resolve the question of the beginning of the universe. However, the Steven Hawking explanation (which you have explained here) rests on a fundamental contradiction. It assumes that there was nothing and then there was something. This means that "nothingness" can violate the law of identity by doing something that its identity cannot allow—namely that it can become something. The Hawkian version of the big bang theory not only violates the law of non-contradiction, it violates the law of conservation which you said that even God could not violate (which I agree with). So in order to avoid a contradiction, one must believe as the ancient greeks (and Mormons) that the universe is eternal. Do you agree?

Where the heck am I going with this? :) If one does see that existence has always existed, then doesn't that increase the chances that intelligence has evolved before. And doesn't that dramatically increase the statistical chances that over time intelligences could have evolved so much that they could become Gods?

4. New question: You wrote: "The basic conclusion from this whole discussion is that if the nature of reality is what it appears to be according to science, then God almost certainly doesn’t exist."

I think you are making a huge leap here. If you are saying that God cannot violate the basic laws of the universe and therefore the traditional Christian conception almost certainly does not exist, then I agree with you. But one doesn't need science for this. Science has nothing to say about this. But the philosophy that science depends on does have a lot to say about this. All one needs is a good objective philosophy that explains the laws of identity and causality. Then if one believes that evidence points to a divine being of some sort, he can check his inferences rationally by exposing possible contradictions or fallacies. I personally do not think that traditional christianity has done a good job of this, but I believe that Mormonism has.

Blake said...

Thanks for posting your point of view. A few thoughts in response:

1) I agree that atheists have a number of good reasons for not believing in God.

2) I am not sure where your idea that God descended from previous Gods came from. The Pearl of Great Price says that in the beginning we were all intelligences and God was the greatest of all. Jesus "received not of the fullness at first," which is why he is the son of God - I think it was Jesus that was referred to in that comment by Joseph Smith. My understanding is that God the father didn't descend from anyone.

As we were all intelligences, God came to be in much the same way as any of us came to be, except that he was greater. That's the theory, anyway.

3) Speaking to your point about probability, whenever I think about people with birth defects, I am amazed at the fact that everything in my body works pretty well. Not only that, but the problem with many severe defect is usually reducible to one or two differences in a DNA strand. The probability of our DNA matching together as it has even once to create our first ancestors is extremely low and yet here we all are.

You could refer to evolution here and break the development of our species into steps. Even so, at some point, something very improbable happened.

4) I thought your reference to thermodynamics was interesting. The second law of thermodynamics says (loosely) that, with each change transformation of energy, the universe is more disorganized than it had been before the change. If that is true, the concept of eternity is impossible. The resolution for us believers is that there must be some sort of law we're not aware of that can circumvent the second law of thermodynamics. Why shouldn't there be one? Improbable, yes; impossible, no.

I recognize this is a tangent; the point I am trying to make is that to a significant degree reality is all in your head. Especially as it pertains to subject as ethereal and unprovable as the nature of God, you can find very good support as well as some serious (though not unreconcilable) contradiction. I am not trying to judge your motives for believing as you do, but you appear to disclaim having any motives, and I don't think that's fair. Every belief reflects a choice.

gavinomics said...

Read King Follet's discourse by Joseph Smith to understand that as man is so God once was... From the context, he is referring to God the father.

Also the idea that "reality is in your head" is technically called "idealism". It was the core idea behind the great apostasy. I have written about that in these posts if you are interested:

Bennion said...

First I'll respond to Gavin.

2 - P(A|B) = P(B|A)*P(A)/P(B). The "|" means "given." Let's say there's a disease that occurs in 1/10000 people. That's P(A). There's a test for it, but it has a false positive rate of 1/1000. That's P(B). If a person has the disease, it always detects it, so P(B|A) = 1. So if the test says a person has a disease, what's the chance they have that disease? That's P(A|B), which is 10%. So this equation could definitely be used when diagnosing a person, for example. There is prior data here too. I'm estimating my probability of God based on the evidence of how the universe works and what we know about intelligence. But I'm not taking into account the evidence FOR God until after that.

3 - Have you heard about the idea that the sum total energy of the universe is zero? It makes me unsure about whether it coming into being out of nothing really violates the Law of Identity. And I really don't know what was before the Big Bang. I just am not sure about whether things that now existence have eternally existed or not. I don't feel qualified to speculate on it. Sorry.

I do see how that seems like it would increase the chances of Gods evolving, but it's still a lot of complexity that you're postulating. But I think it's the most convincing argument I know of.

4 - I know what you're referring to here, because I read your blog posts. I think I agree with you, but I'd add that the arguments I've posted seem like they apply to the Mormon God as well as the traditional Christian God.

Since I think we might profitably engage in a great deal more discussion, I might suggestion we continue the conversation over email :) Thanks again for your insightful questions.

Blake, I'll respond to your post soon.

TStock said...

I know you posted this over a month ago, but I just came across your blog. I hope you don't mind me chiming in so late in the game!

I believe what is said about God not being able to break physical laws, but I also believe there is plenty we don't know about physical laws. When you get in to String Theory (of which I admittedly only have a surface view) there are all sorts of multi-dimensional properties, including parallel worlds that could be right in our midst, each with their own physical laws. I don't have a problem with God's seeming impossibility somehow fitting in with all of our unknowns. (Acknowledging again I have only a cursory understanding of String Theory, and that String Theory remains mostly unproven, and also that I've been watching a lot of Doctor Who lately :)

Science is ever-changing and expanding, like the recent experiments that seem to show particles moving faster than the speed of light (highly unlikely, but wouldn't that be fantastic?). Newton's Laws don't work when approaching the speed of light, with extremely massive objects, or at the sub-atomic level. Newton wasn't wrong, but we needed General Relativity and Quantum Theory to broaden our understanding. But even these two theories don't work with each other. To quote Brian Greene on the topic: "The big problem is that each theory is great for each realm, but when they confront each other, they are ferocious antagonists, and the mathematics falls apart." So none of these theories are wrong, but there isn't yet an accepted theory to encompass them all.

My view has always been that scientific truths and religious truths experience a similar disconnect. I don't discount anything science has proven, nor anything my with which my faith has enlightened my mind. I don't know how to reconcile the "fierce antagonists" of Evolution and Creation, but if Quantum Theory and Relativity can be accepted but remain unreconciled, then so can science and religion. I'll hold out for the one big theory that can encompass Thermodynamics, Relativity, Quantum Theory, and God.

The trouble, of course, for scientists is that religious beliefs are, almost by definition, unprovable. But for the religious, "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," though it's a different kind of evidence than can be obtained through the scientific method. To me, the absence of proof is not proof of absence. So while you won't believe in God without proof He exists, I won't stop believing in God without proof He doesn't.

Aside from that we seem to be of similar mind in seeking truth wherever it can be found, be it the Dalai Lama, or anywhere else, and in having compassion and respect for all.

Bennion said...

Wow, due to TStock posting I realized I never responded to Blake's post. Sorry Blake!

The idea that God descended from other Gods comes from, I believe, the King Follett discourse, and was summed up by Lorenzo Snow: "As man is, God once was, as God is, Man may become." It's pretty controversial, and not generally accepted or consistently interpreted by Mormon scholars.

I don't understand your point about DNA: what do you mean by "our DNA matching together"? The genes that were successful survived by natural selection; we're all a mix of many different genes. I don't see why anything terribly improbable happened ever.

I think the problem you mentioned with the second law of thermodynamics is resolved because energy is gained through the expansion of the universe by the false vacuum surrounding it, which is why the total energy of the universe is zero. It's also possible that eternity doesn't exist.

I think some beliefs reflect a choice: those for which there appears to be evidence either way. However, as I've read more about the arguments on both sides, I've become convinced that one side is right, so I don't think that it's a choice for me anymore. I claim that my motives are purely epistemological: I want my beliefs to be what is most likely to be true. And I think that is fair, because I believe it's true.

Sorry again for forgetting about your post for so long. Feel free to send me an email.

Bennion said...

TStock (or anyone), feel free to comment at any time. I'm reading about string theory right now too! My opinion is that it's theoretically possible, but very unlikely, that any physical theory would enable anyone to do what God is claimed to be able to do. Scientists have totally missed some very powerful tools if what God supposedly can do is even possible.

The funny thing is that I used to use that same analogy before I changed my mind about God's existence.

I definitely think you nailed the difference in approach: I'm trying to align my beliefs with what is most likely to be true, while you're choosing beliefs for other reasons, until proven false.

There are a lot of non-epistemological motivations for choosing beliefs, such as social or emotional reasons. I have a hard time saying that's a bad idea, if it leads to your being better off with those beliefs. I just personally prefer to believe what I think is most likely to be true, and I think there's a lot of advantages to that approach. Let me know what you think.

Blake said...

I read your post “arguments-against-idealism”, and I wanted to clarify that the way of thinking described in your post is different than what I had in mind. Your post defines idealism as the idea that consciousness has primacy over reality. I agree that this is not true in the long term, and is a recipe for trouble. My comments above are for those subjects that cannot be objectively known right now, including the existence and nature of God. Do you agree that such topics are beyond the purvey of the blog post referenced?

@Gavinomics and Bennion
I found a copy of the King Follett discourse reprinted in a 1971 Ensign Magazine. It was interesting. The idea that God descended from another God was implied, but it was not expressly stated. The phrase “as man is, God once was, as God is, Man may become” could be interpreted in a variety of ways. The idea that someone exists above God is not necessarily contemplated in this statement.

By “DNA matching together” I’m referring to the pairing and syntax of the DNA bases that make our bodies what they are. It’s true that natural selection would have had some influence on that. My point is that, to my way of thinking, for everything to come together just as it does—and starting from nothing—is improbable relative to the idea that a creator guided the process.

Bennion said...

Blake, let me try to clarify Pr(God exists): If you rolled back time to before Gods existed, it's the probability that they come into existence. One rebuttal is that they always existed, all the way back. I don't think that idea is any more likely than them coming into existence, so I don't think it really matters which way you interpret the King Follett discourse.

Our bodies being so complex demands explanation, but a lot can happen with a billion years of evolution. A creator guiding the process doesn't qualify as a more probable explanation, because the creator is even more complex than we are, and you haven't explained how he came about. The problem you've created is more complex than the problem you solved.

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