Saturday, 31 January 2015

Sliming Mount Improbable

In his iconic book, "The God Delusion", Richard Dawkins posits a qualitative scale of theism ranging from 1: Strong Theist to 7: Strong Atheist with the mid-value of 4 for those good honest agnostics who admit to being happy to sit squarely on the fence. Dawkins declares himself to be "a 6.9" and goes on to say "I'd be surprised to meet many people in Category 7... Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants."

Whilst philosophically I accept this logic, it still strikes me as being frustratingly non-committal, and doesn't consider the dynamic nature of the evidence, i.e. the balance of probability of a divine existence versus the increasing certainty of divine non-existence as time passes without the slightest hint of an omnipotent being even vaguely flexing their muscles.

So whilst one can state that existence of a god can never be disproved, the probability of such decreases continuously with time as no scientifically credible evidence is found.
Contemplating this situation reminded me of one of Zeno's paradoxes which I remember first being presented to me thus:

A snail crawls half way to the bottom of the garden one day, then half the distance left the next day, then half the remaining distance again the following day, etc. Does the snail actually ever make it to the end of the garden?

Well - it's evident that the snail will never truly reach his* goal (especially bearing in mind the finite natural lifespan of gastropods), but since the remaining distance decreases as an inverse exponential, then "as near as dammit"** he just as well might have. And mathematicians do indeed allow these convergent infinite series to be assigned with an exact result***.

So while philosophers continue to argue the toss over god's existence, the Snail of Doubt creeps relentlessly ever closer to his goal, with only divine intervention capable of thwarting his progress....

For all practical purposes, I therefore suggest that as long as one accepts the infinitessimal possibility of having to eat humble pie and change one's stance in the event of some supernatural entity finally and unequivocally demonstrating their presence, it's absolutely a perfectly reasonable stance to declare oneself a 7 on the Dawkins scale and unequivocally state one's disbelief.


* Most snails are hermaphroditic and I'm not sure what the correct personal pronoun is for such cases; I hope none are offended by my adoption of he/his/him. ;-)

** My old maths teacher's technical term.

*** The ones and zeroes in digital electronics switch in an analogous manner, arguably never actually reaching an absolute state of one-ness or zero-ness, but fortunately engineers are far too sensible to let such things worry them... ;-)