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Thank You Lord for Making Me Likely

by Jamie Whyte

The existence of each of us is extraordinarily improbable. Had things been even slightly different-had that shrapnel entered your grandfather's chest two inches to the right, had that train not been delayed so that your parents did not meet at the platform, had the drugstore not sold out of condoms that night- then you would not have existed. How easily all this might never have been. Sets you to thinking, doesn't it? Indeed it does. And what many conclude is that it could not have been a coincidence after all. Surely nothing that important- my existence-can have been a matter of chance. No, it was fated that my parents should meet at the station, that the drugstore should have a run on Trojans, and that sperm number 231,114 out of the millions issued by my father that fateful night should be the one to win the race and fertilize my mother's egg.
The conceit of this thinking is breathtaking. Had things gone differently-had your mother not met your father at the platform, for example-then although you would not have existed, some- one else would have. Your mother would have met someone else and reproduced with him instead. And had things gone differently in other ways, then yet other people who do not now exist would have: even a different sperm from your father would have meant a different person. To say that your existence is fated is to say that fate or God or whoever is supposed to arrange these things prefers you to all the many possible people whom your existence has ruled out. You must really be special.
Most theologians are humble to the point of ostentation and so wouldn't dream of adopting such an egocentric view of how they came to be. But many do attempt to use the improbability of human existence, if not their own personal human existence, to show that God exists. The argument follows just the line above. They begin by noting how improbable the existence of human beings would be if God did not exist. And from this fact alone they conclude that God exists.

George Schlesinger makes the argument as follows:
In the last few decades a tantalizingly great number of exceedingly rare coincidences, vital for the existence of a minimally stable universe and without which no form of life could exist anywhere, have been discovered…
The hypothesis that [the requirements for life were] produced by a Being interested in sentient organic systems adequately explains this otherwise inexplicably astonishing fact.

The existence of humans is indeed improbable. The laws of nature that govern our universe are but one set out of infinitely many possible sets of laws of nature. And had they differed only slightly the universe would be a mere swirl of subatomic particles, free from medium-sized objects like rocks, trees, and humans. And even given the actual laws of nature, evolutionary history could have taken different twists and turns and failed to deliver human beings.
So the premise of this theological argument, that human existence is unlikely, is true. But it provides no ground for believing in God. Showing why not is useful because it illuminates a common fallacy in probabilistic reasoning. Before identifying this fallacy, however, it is easy to see that the argument is invalid. If it were valid we could conclude, without the aid of any evidence, that all lotteries are rigged. Which, I hope you will agree, we cannot.
Suppose Jill has won Lotto. This was very improbable, about a one in fifteen million chance. Unless, of course, the lottery was rigged in her favor. Therefore, the lottery was rigged in her favor. Or, as George Schlesinger would put it, the hypothesis that the lottery was rigged in her favor adequately explains the otherwise inexplicably astonishing fact that Jill won.
There is nothing special about Jill. Suppose Jack had won the Lotto instead. This, too, would have been very improbable had the lottery not been rigged in his favor. So, if Jack wins, we may also conclude that the lottery was rigged. Indeed, whoever wins, we may conclude that the lottery was rigged in his favor, because his winning would otherwise be very improbable.
The original theological version of the argument has precisely
the same absurd consequence. Suppose the laws of nature had indeed been slightly different so that humans did not exist. Then other things would have existed instead. And their existence would have been no less improbable than ours, since if the laws of nature had been slightly different, these things would not have existed. Unless, of course, God wanted them to. So, no matter what the laws of nature and hence what kinds of things in the universe, their improbability would always lead to the conclusion that God exists.
The basic error in the argument is a confusion about probabilities. ''Which hypothesis is more probable?,” we are asked, ''that humans exist by chance or that God made it so?” As a general principle, we ought to believe the more probable hypothesis.
And which hypothesis makes our existence more probable? Obviously, that God brought us about on purpose.
If you haven't already noticed the slip, consider another case.
Jack has just won a game of poker. Which hand makes this out- come most probable? A royal flush. If Jack had a royal flush, then he was certain to win. So, should we conclude from the fact that he won that Jack had a royal flush? Obviously not. The probability of getting a royal flush is very low, and winning with a lesser hand is quite likely. The hand Jack most probably won with is not a royal flush, despite the fact that it is the hand that, if he had it, would give his winning the highest probability.
The fallacy in our theological argument should now be clear.
The statement,
1. Given God's existence, the existence of humans is probable,
does not entail,
2. Given the existence of humans, God's existence is probable.
To infer 2. from 1. is to make the same mistake as inferring from the fact that a royal flush makes winning most likely, that Jack's winning makes it most likely that he had a royal flush. So this theological argument is structurally defective.
Nor would it work even if we were ready to commit the required statistical fallacy. What makes theologians think that God's existence would make human existence probable, in the way that a royal flush makes victory in poker probable? There's God, sitting wherever He sits, contemplating all the universes He might create, with their various laws of nature, planets, creatures, and all manner of things that we cannot imagine . . . and He chooses this one! I do not mean to indulge in the kind of self- flagellation that Christians enjoy when not trying on this theological argument, but I mean to say can this really be God's best option? Even given the existence of God, it is entirely a matter of luck that we should exist, because it is entirely a matter of luck that He should prefer this kind of universe. How do theologians explain this extraordinary coincidence? Perhaps God was created by an ├╝ber-god who prefers gods who prefer this kind of universe.
But that would be a matter of luck too. And so we will soon have an infinity of gods, each explaining the next god's extraordinarily unlikely preferences.
I have met several people who, when explaining the extreme youth or old age of their parents, have told me, ''Of course, I was an accident." Well, if they can admit it, why can't we all? Our existence is not due to the preferences of some fabulous Being: it's just dumb luck. Why people should feel bothered by this I don't know. They have won the lottery of life!

From Crimes Against Logic, by Jamie Whyte, pp 128-132


Robert said…
I've been reading Crimes Against Logic and have been mostly nodding in agreement to every logical fallacy Whyte describes. I was getting worried that my unending agreement mirrored the sheeple that Whyte's book warns about and attempts to prevent. That is, until I got to this section.

And I have one question about his probability argument that aims to counter egocentric claims for God's existence. Does the argument claiming God's existence depend on premise 2 (Given the existence of humans, God's existence is probable). It seems that this point Whyte makes actually begs the question. The issue is not whether the existence of our particular universe likely indicates the existence of God; the issue is whether the existence of divinity makes the existence of any universe (its particularity or its instance of human life are irrelevant) more probable than no divinity at all.

This might be missing the point if Whyte's only purpose was to counter the inherently weak inductive argument for god based on misinterpreting odds. If we are to take the best form of this argument, however, then the question of odds rooted in the particularity of our universe is moot.

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