theology and probability, part2

In the following we shall finally consider one of the more serious issues.
Similar questions have bothered the serious thinkers for several centuries and perhaps I can finally make an important contribution.
What is the probability for the existence of the invisible pink unicorn?

It may be necessary to clarify a few terms first. With "invisible" we mean here that one cannot test or detect the supreme being with currently available scientific methods. With "pink unicorn" we mean that a true believer may (or may not) experience the supreme being through direct revelation as pink and a unicorn. It is obvious that this believe system is consistent [see footnote 1] and furthermore it seems to be reasonable as we shall see in the following.

It is also immediately obvious that an atheistic position (which assigns a probability p(i.p.u.) = 0 to the existence of the i.p.u.) is problematic and indeed inconsistent with the usual rules of reasoning.

In general one should not assign a zero prior to a consistent and eventually reasonable model, but furthermore
if one is certain that the i.p.u. does not exist, then there can be no facts directly related to the i.p.u. and thus no facts to make a rational decision that p(i.p.u.) = 0. [2]

The agnostic position, which assigns a probability p(i.p.u.) = A with
0 < A < 1 seems reasonable at first (the A stand for either agnostic or arbitrary), however, it really is problematic as well.

The obvious question is what value A to use, which does not have a good answer. But it gets much worse once we consider the fact that an agnostic (and only an agnostic!) must assign the same probability to the "invisible yellow dragon", the "invisible green parrot", the "invisible red herring" etc.
In other words, the agnostic has to deal with a discrete but obviously infinite set of possibilities, which are a priori equally likely, and assigning any probability A to one of them would mean that the sum

p(i.p.u.) + p(i.y.d.) + p(i.g.p.) + p(i.r.h.) + ... = A + A + A + ...

necessarily diverges instead of adding up to one [4].

This seems to leave us with the true believer, who assigns p(i.p.u.) = 1, as the only one with a consistent and reasonable position [3]. It is also the only one with a chance to gather real evidence through direct revelation.


[1] In order to better understand that believing in the "invisible pink unicorn" is perfectly consistent, we consider a model which assumes that the world around us with all its possible experiences is just the result of an elaborate computer simulation. The supreme being would then e.g. be the administrator of this simulation and she would be "invisible" to all
the beings in the simulated world. However, she may (or may not) choose to reveal her existence to true believers every now and then by programming the direct experience of a "pink unicorn".
Of course, to have true faith in the "invisible pink unicorn" does not include believe in this particular model and indeed a true believer would most likely understand it as heresy by limiting the potential mode of existence of the supreme being.

[2] If one makes the scientific statement that "pink unicorns do not exist", then it really means e.g. that a careful and exhaustive scientific search has not detected "pink unicorns" or that a particular well established theory excludes "pink unicorns". In other words "pink unicorns do not exist" is really a statement e.g. about the scientific search or the well established theory.

However, in the case of the "invisible pink unicorn" such a scientific search is meaningless
and no relevant theory can exist.

Furthermore, the fact that one did not experience the supreme being as "pink unicorn" through direct revelation is of course irrelevant, because such revelation requires true believe.

[3] True faith in the "invisible pink unicorn" sets the probability for all other possible supreme beings to zero, thus avoiding the problem of the agnostic.

Different to an atheist, the true believer in the "invisible pink unicorn" can indeed set the probability for the existence of the "invisible green parrot" etc. to zero, p[i.g.p.] = p[i.y.d.] = ... = 0, because she can use the fact of her own strong faith as justification; The atheist has no such fact available.

[4] added later 4/6/09

Yes, I am aware that a true Bayesian may use an improper prior in this case. (I also admit that I learned about it only two weeks ago and it was actually one reason to write this post.)

But how would she update this prior to get to real probabilities?
Notice that reports of revelation will only become available if true believers are around, but
this means Bayesian updating would depend on the existence of people not using the Bayesian method. How can one rely on the testimony of such irrational people?

One could also (try to) argue for a non-uniform prior. E.g. all invisible supreme beings are described as "the invisible X1 X2 X3 ... Xn" using n words X1, X2... , Xn.
It could make sense to weight the probability with the inverse of the complexity of the supreme being, approximated by n, e.g. such that p("the invisible X1 X2 ...Xn") = exp( -f(n) ) and f(n) is chosen so
that the sum of all probabilities converges. But there are a few problems with this.

It is obviously a very crude method to approximate the complexity of a supreme being in such a
way, e.g. some of the descriptions might be of the form "the invisible being which is ... but is
very simple indeed", etc.

Also, notice that the "invisible blue dolphin which likes yellow fish and ..." is known as
"iok Aum" in the Zaliwali language, so it would have a much higher probability than for an
English speaking Bayesian. But of course, probability is about subjective uncertainty 8-)

I guess there are many clever ways a Bayesian could "fix" this problem, but I am afraid from
my point of view it would only get us deeper and deeper into nonsense land.


Anonymous said...

My belief is for the "invisible being that never reveals itself and is of no consequence whatsoever".
I think this solves this problem!

wolfgang said...

Good for you!
And pretty clever, but I am worried that there is a little bit of inconsistency, because if your believe in the i.b.t.n.r.i.a.i.o.n.c.w solves this problem then it is not "of no consequence whatsoever".

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm I have to think about it *grin*
But seriously, why the obsession with religion and supreme beings on your blog?

wolfgang said...

I don't think I am obsessed, but the peculiar logic makes for some interesting (?) puzzles.
Also, I think that monotheistic religion was historically an important pre-requisite of science and thus it makes sense to think about it.
E.g. the idea that the world is determined by natural laws and yet scientists are free to discover and experiment is an important basic assumption imho.