The Origin of Life

Atheist overconfidence

I occasionally get some criticism for being a closet creationist after writing my essay on the possibility of intelligent design playing a role in the origin of the universe or man.

I'm OK with this. A number of those who have influenced my intellectual development also took simulism serously - particularly Hans Moravec (e.g. see Pigs in Cyberspace, 1992) and Ed Fredkin (e.g. see A New Cosmogony, 1992).

The Dawkins argument

I've said that Richard Dawkins is being overconfident with his "very low" chance of there being a god. So, where does he go wrong?

Dawkins summarises his argument as follows:

One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person. This temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.

The problem with the argument

One problem here is that the logic of the argument is invalid. A human is, in most reasonable senses of the term, less probable than a ceramic cup. There are many more ceramic cups than humans. However, each ceramic cup was, in fact, designed and created by humans. Here, the creators are indeed less probable than the created, but the created objects were in fact designed by a creator.

It is easy to imagine scenarios in which most humans are created by designers and exist in simulations. As Hans Moravec put it in Pigs in Cyberspace:

An evolving cyberspace becomes effectively ever more capacious and long lasting, and so can support ever more minds of ever greater power. If these minds spend only an infinitesimal fraction of their energy contemplating the human past, their sheer power should ensure that eventually our entire history is replayed many times in many places, and in many variations. The very moment we are now experiencing may actually be (almost certainly is) such a distributed mental event, and most likely is a complete fabrication that never happened physically.
The issue is the probability of these kinds of scenario. We need to factor in the number of original 'meat' humans, the chance of them forming an expansionistic civilization, and the number of simulated humans that are eventually created. As an additional complicating factor we probably also need to consider a multiverse of possible worlds, and average across them. We know that most world simulations are less complex that the world that is simulating them. So, if we are simulations, the parent world is probably larger and richer than our own.

This is, unfortunately a complicated sum - and not one which I think that Richard Dawkins has seriously attempted to perform. However, in the face of unknowns and uncertainty what you should not do is make predictions with a high level of certainty. Dawkins' estimate of a "very low" chance of God existing does not seem to be justified by the available evidence.

There's another plausible explanation for high levels of expressed confidence: overconfidence bias. This is an extremely widespread phenomenon. The explanation for it involves signalling. Appearing to be confident signals that you have knowledge. People like to appear knowledgeable, so they make overconfident estimates in public.

In this case there are some other complicating political factors. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. His theistic opponents are mostly idiots with religious delusions. This is a tribal fight, and in such battles there's a tendency to exaggerate the strength of your own position. In short, Dawkins' position is probably partly propaganda.

Dawkins Response

Dawkins has responded to accusations of atheist overconfidence as follows:

The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that’s overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which there is evidence – trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost.
The invisible unicorn is unlikely partly because it is very specific: it is not merely invisible, it is a unicorn. Thor and Ganesh are unlikely for similar reasons. The idea that intelligent design is responsible for the universe is not specific in the same way - it is quite vague about the nature of the intelligent agent involved. It is more like saying that there's something invisible in the room. What with the neutrinos and the infra-red rediation, that's actually a pretty safe bet.

I also advocate belief supported by evidence. However I'm not seeing the evidence for a very low probability of god. The creation of the visible universe happened a long time ago, and we don't know much about its origins. Whether it was designed by an intelligent agent or not is simply not clear. That's one of the reason for ongoing debate on the topic: nobody really knows. The correct response to a lack of evidence is to widen one's confidence interval. Very high or very low probabilities are not supported by the available evidence.

Tim Tyler | Contact |