Monday, December 24, 2007

"God's action" odds can't be determined

{ Podcast this essay } Suppose a pious person were trying to assess whether God would do something -- i.e. that they wanted to calculate the odds that God would act in one way as compared to some other way. Stipulate that there is a God, and that God's attributes are close to what the Abrahamic religions claim (monotheistic, inter-personal, righteous, etc.)

Assessing the probability that God would act in certain ways would be impossible on standard methods of assessing odds. Why? Because there is no control variable that can be levied on God's acts. For example, we don't have another universe with like conditions where God does something else instead of what God (allegedly or even observably) did. Nor do we have this type of thing, God, where another token of that type of thing does something else. (Note the type/token distinction.)

Take a more inane experiment. Imagine we run ants through a maze, noting the odds of them completing the maze in some time limit. In some cases, we carefully paint over their tiny eyes. But in other cases we leave some of the ants' eyes functioning. Here we have a type of thing, Ant, where two collections of tokens of that type of thing (i.e. ants in set #1, ants in set #2) are tested under the same conditions.

Contrast the ant case with the God case. On a monotheistic view, we don't have multiple tokens of God to assess, and neither do we have at our disposal observations of whole separate universes in order to test the one token of God that there is.

One might be able to talk about what one expects God to do, but this would be about our psychological dispositions, not about justification for expecting some event to occur (or not) in the world. This goes under the title, subjectivist probability, and is summarized as follows:
Theories which analyze probability in terms of beliefs or attitudes rather than anything in the world itself. For one theory, associated mainly with Bruno De Finetti (1906-1985), the degree of probability of something is the degree of the speaker's belief, measured by his betting behavior, but subject to the constraint that his bets must be 'coherent'; that is, he must not bet in such a way as to lose whatever happens (sometimes called 'having a Dutch book made against one'). This constraint still leaves probabilities dependent on the vagaries of individual attitudes, unless we substitute those of 'the rational man' - but that takes us away from subjectivism. Others, notably Stephen Edelston Toulmin (1922-), offer a speech act theory whereby to call something probable is to assert it, though only tentatively. This may well apply to some uses of 'probably', but hardly to all [....][1]
This is the best a person of faith can expect, but this type of calculation would not be convincing to otherwise uncommitted third parties regarding whether or not God acted.


[1] "Subjectivist Theories of Probability" The Philosophy Professor (Accesed 12/24/2007)


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At 2:11 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Granted, determining the strict odds of an agent behaving in one way or another is a very sticky matter, but it seems that the "odds" are a strange way of examing behavior in the first place. If one wanted to determine the likelihood of someone (God)acting in one fashion as opposed to the contrary fashion (say: smiting small children at random with horrific diseases as opposed to not) then one could take into account the pesonality, convictions and the like of such a person and then move to make justified (limited, but usefully justified as interpersonal experience shows)decisions as to how that person will more probably than not behave. Now, if the person (God) is only putatively existent then the question should be asked: what type of world would such an person so composed, capable, and operant create and interact with. In this instance, a world in which young innocents are repeatedly and randomly stricken with terminal diseases could be reasonably seen as a world in which such a deity does not exist or, in the very least, responsibly operate. Granted, there are ways around such a conclusion, but those reasons risk making God insignificant and neglectful, if not malicious.

At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would it be possible to discuss the relative probabilities of the gods of different religions (i.e. Jesus, Allah, Zeus, etc.) performing various activities? Would it be possible to accurately say something like, "Jesus is more likely to do ______ than Allah?"


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