The 99 Percent Solution

One of the more tiresome parts of being an atheist is having to deal with preachers who drag out the old apologetic cliches and convince themselves that they’re being clever. Just so is this piece from one Rev. Eric Strachan:

[I] like to ask every atheist, “What percentage of the total knowledge that one could possibly acquire do you think you have?”

Interestingly, most answer around five per cent or thereabout. “Think again,” I say. “It’s more likely to be around .05 per cent!”

I then like to ask every atheist, “Do you think in the 99.95 per cent of knowledge that you don’t have, there could exist the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ?”

Like Pascal’s Wager, this argument turns up often in Christian apologetics, so I thought I’d write a detailed answer to it.

In the strict logical sense, yes, it’s true that our knowledge encompasses only a small fraction of all the facts there are to know about the universe, and it’s true that the existence of a god might be one of those unknown facts. It’s also true, by that very same reasoning, that there might be leprechauns, dragons, unicorns, goblins, centaurs, fairies and Santa Claus. But that doesn’t mean we have positive reason to believe in the existence of any of those beings. There’s a vast set of facts that we don’t possess, but since that set might contain absolutely anything, it’s pointless to base our lives on speculation about its contents. That’s why, as a general rule, we should believe only those propositions for which we have supporting evidence. We should and must make our decisions on the basis of what we do know, rather than what we don’t.

But there’s a larger fallacy in this argument, which is shown in the above quote with beautiful clarity. This fallacy is that the people making it are never just asking us to allow for the theoretical possibility of a god unknown to humanity somewhere in the far reaches of the universe. They are always asking us to believe in a very specific notion of God – a god whose personality, wants and desires they claim to know, and whom they believe has intervened actively in human history. In short, they themselves believe that God’s existence lies not within the sphere of our ignorance, but the sphere of our knowledge.

The question is, how did they come by those beliefs? How can theists possibly hold such a specific, detailed conception of God, unless some fact somewhere within the 1% or less of things we do know gives them a justification for it? And if that’s the case, they should be able to show us that fact so we can examine it ourselves. If they can’t do this, or if the facts they propose don’t stand up to scrutiny, then we are within our rights to dismiss their belief as unfounded and arbitrary. We are atheists precisely because all the god claims that we have so far surveyed have not stood up to this examination. Of course, we reserve the option to change our minds in the future if we find one that does – but given the repeated failures of these claims in the past, we rightly consider that unlikely.

Evidence is the golden thread that links belief to truth. It’s the only reliable way to choose one belief in particular out of the vast and limitless ocean of possible beliefs, and to do so with confidence that the belief we choose will accurately represent the way the world truly is. If that evidence is not there, or if it’s insufficient to bear the weight placed upon it, then that golden thread is severed and the belief is ungrounded, arbitrary. And considering how many possible beliefs there are, and the infinitesimal percentage of them that accurately represent the world, it’s all but certain that an arbitrarily chosen belief is false. Asking a person to believe on such an arbitrary basis as faith is merely an invitation to be wrong. We atheists believe that one’s worldview should be more solidly grounded than that.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Valhar2000

    If Mr. Strachan thinks that argument is strong, what about the converse? Does he not think in the 99.95 per cent of knowledge that he doesn’t have, there could be the non-existence of any gods?

    If he thinks his argument is valid, he must accept this one as well, in which case he must accept at one and the same time the belief that there is a god and the belief that there is no god.

    I’ve seen some bad arguments against atheism, but this…

  • Richie

    I have to say it rather amuses me that the Rev. Eric Strachan (and I daresay many others) feel justified in estimating exactly how much we don’t know. 99.95% of all knowable things? How on Earth can we possibly arrive at such a figure. We don’t know how many things we don’t know. For all we know, the sum of human knowledge might be 0.0000005%, or it might in fact be 95%. I’d be very interested to hear how he came to such a precise figure as 0.05%…

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    He’s also talking about individual atheists. So not allowing for the fact that others may know something of the available knowledge I lack, but still finding no evidence for his god or anyone else’s.

  • Valhar2000

    This guy makes the same mistake Michael Egnor and other IDiots routinely make You need knowledge to justify positive claims; you cannot justify a positive claim with ignorance.

  • http://personman.com Danny

    Another great debunking. Keep up the good work. One test that I’ve been applying to apologetic claims is to replace “God” with “Vishnu.” If the claim makes equal amounts of sense for both of those religions, then it doesn’t really help the Christian apologist’s case. This claim fails that test.

  • Somero

    Nice post,
    although I get a bit squeamish whenever you start talking for all atheists.
    I know a fews atheists that base their non-belief on emotion tather than evidense.

  • David D.G.

    Nicely done, and very succinct. One could write a whole book chapter deconstructing just this sort of fallacious tactic, but you manage to shred it in only one short page. I wish my writing were as compact.

    ~David D.G.

  • Alex, FCD

    [I] like to ask every atheist, “What percentage of the total knowledge that one could possibly acquire do you think you have?”

    Interestingly, most answer around five per cent or thereabout. “Think again,” I say. “It’s more likely to be around .05 per cent!”

    0.05% is a ridiculous over-estimate. The amount of total knowledge that one could possibly acquire, if not infinite, is certainly very much larger than the largest numbers we’re used to dealing with. Just as an example, there are, at a conservative estimate, 10^22 stars in the observable universe. It is theoretically possible to know the average distance from the earth to each of those stars in light years (in the sense that there aren’t any theoretical barriers to learning the distance of any particular one). Having 0.05% of that small subset of theoretically possible knowledge would entail knowing the distances to (10^22)(0.0005) = 5•10^18 stars.

    I don’t know about any of you, but I only know the distance to one star (Proxima Centauri, about 4.2 light years).

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I don’t know about any of you, but I only know the distance to one star (Proxima Centauri, about 4.2 light years).

    Would you happen to know if there are any observable orbiting teapots anywhere near there?

  • Joffan

    Would you happen to know if there are any observable orbiting teapots anywhere near there?

    No, there aren’t. Unless you stretch the definition of “teapot” to include something observable at this distance; and I don’t want any of the tea from that, thanks.

  • velkyn

    along with this “argument” and I use that term loosely, is the “but you can’t prove God is impossible” garbage. No, I probably can’t, but I can prove him improbable, especially if God is the being defined in the Bible.

    Same with Russel’s teapot. No, I can’t look under every rock in the entire universe to “prove” that one doesn’t exist, but I can know the probablity is pretty low. And for a god to be so hard to find, not much of a god, is it?

  • Polly

    I was asked this question on the street. My response was not nearly as eloquent, but I made one of the points Ebon does: I don’t base my decisions on making guesses about the things out there that I don’t know, just on whatever I can and do know.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Velkyn,
    I would say that certain conceptions of god are impossible. I recommend this book.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I was asked this question on the street. My response was not nearly as eloquent… I often wish I could sound as intellingent when talking to Christians out in the world as Ebon does on this blog. I’m guessing they wouldn’t listen anyway.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    In the strict logical sense, yes, it’s true that our knowledge encompasses only a small fraction of all the facts there are to know about the universe, and it’s true that the existence of a god might be one of those unknown facts. It’s also true, by that very same reasoning, that there might be leprechauns, dragons, unicorns, goblins, centaurs, fairies and Santa Claus. But that doesn’t mean we have positive reason to believe in the existence of any of those beings.

    I agree with all of that. Any of those things could be true, and the mere possibility that they might be true certainly entails a weak epistemology. I’m all for the wisdom in beliefs founded on supporting evidence. OTOH, not all possible ideas retain equal explanatory power, and the facts we don’t possess do not equally permit any and all ideas, which is where overly charitable people often take these lines of reasoning.

    In short, they themselves believe that God’s existence lies not within the sphere of our ignorance, but the sphere of our knowledge. The question is, how did they come by those beliefs? How can theists possibly hold such a specific, detailed conception of God, unless some fact somewhere within the 1% or less of things we do know gives them a justification for it?

    Of course, and a strong reply, but we know theists will generally say that is the case, and unfortunately we’re back to square one. Even worse, in your very next sentence, you return fallacy for fallacy by presupposing that theists “should be able to show us that fact so we can examine it ourselves.” This is an unfounded presupposition. It is entirely within reason that any fact which persuaded a particular believer might not be of the nature that can be reproduced.

    Evidence is the golden thread that links belief to truth.

    I like that. It goes right along with Valhar2000s comment March 4, 2009, 9:39 am, and has that philosopher’s ring to it. Everything else in your closing paragraph rings 100% true with me as well. I also liked Richie’s comment March 4, 2009, 9:00 am.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Wow, an apologetic I hadn’t heard before! Could this be the one that changes my mind?

    …mmm…nope. If anything it’s stupider than most.

    The response that leaps to my mind is,

    If he’s out there, why’s he hiding?

    (I know, I know, I’m supposed to “open my heart” and then he’ll reveal himself. Why he chose not to, during all those years of my youth that I spent sincerely trying to pray and believe, must be one of those “mysterious ways” of his.)

  • Polly

    Cl said:

    It is entirely within reason that any fact which persuaded a particular believer might not be of the nature that can be reproduced.

    And that’s perfectly OK. The problem arises with the expectation on the part of the theist that that irreproducible event should somehow seem compelling to ME, too, even though I am getting it second-hand.

    btw – I wouldn’t even trust my OWN experiences if I had some reason to doubt the reliability of my faculties, e.g. fever, drugs, alcohol-induced stupor, blunt head-trauma, lack of sleep, etc.

  • Dennis

    Do you think in the 99.95 per cent of knowledge that you don’t have, there could exist the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ?

    There could also exist solid proof in there that Jesus was gay and lying. Or a rapist. Or a murderer. Since we’re just wildly guessing, let’s have fun with it and offend some delicate Christian sensibilities. That’s much less far fetched of an idea than Yahweh existing.

  • bassmanpete

    I don’t know about any of you, but I only know the distance to one star (Proxima Centauri, about 4.2 light years).

    You mean you don’t know the distance to our own sun? :)

  • Dennis

    The distance to Sol is easy, it’s 1! Simply 1 AU.

  • Eric

    This is just a probablistic rehash of the old “You’d have to be God to know there’s no God” argument.

    Let Gx mean “x has the God properties”

    Thus athiesm can be stated as ~ ∃x Gx

    Which is equivalent by quantifier exchange to:

    ∀x~Gx

    Which as a universal quantification is equivalent to an indefintely long conjunction asserting that each and every oobject is such that it des not have the God properties. The theist asserts that because we cannot know that the facts of the matter about every single object in the universe, we cannot say there is no God. This argument is obviously weak as a rehash of the you can’t prove a negative” saw. There are plenty of ways to prove a negative of this type.

    Furthermore. Christians assert there is exactly one God. This is equivalent to the claim “There is at least one God and no more than one God.” Leaving aside the first part of that claim we can represent “There is no more than one God” as:

    ∀x[Gx → ∀y(Gy → y=x)]

    When expanded this formula is equivalent to an indefinitely long conjunction containing all ordered pairs of individuals.

    If athiesm is indefensible, so is monotheism.

    BTW, thanks Ebon for supporting HTML entities.

  • Christopher

    There could also exist solid proof in there that Jesus was gay and lying. Or a rapist. Or a murderer. Since we’re just wildly guessing, let’s have fun with it and offend some delicate Christian sensibilities.

    Ok, let’s run with it: there’s also possibly solid proof that Satan is the “One True ‘God’” (TM) and that Jesus is acting in rebelion against him, that the Holy Spirit is actually a turkey that was cooked in a Martian oven by a civilization that existed millions of years before man evolved and that Yaweh/El is a sadomasichist that enjoys having his angels choke him in the shower!

    How’s that for starters?

  • TEP

    There could also be in that 99.95% knowledge proof that there exists a god more powerful than Yahweh, who despises all beings like Yahweh and has the capacity to kill them. Or perhaps in that 99.95% of unknown facts there is proof of the existence of a gigantic lump of kryptonite, whose mere presence in a universe is sufficient to kill any and all gods. So even if we assume that their appallingly weak argument is valid, it isn’t enough to show that it is possible that some of the unknown facts contain evidence of Yahweh – they also have to show that of all these unknown facts, there is nothing amongst them proving that Yahweh has been killed. To do this would require omniscience. So, if we are justified in believing in Yahweh’s existence from speculating that there might be proof for him amongst all the facts we don’t know, then we must also conclude that he is dead.

  • TommyP

    Oh Yahweh kryptonite, that’s something that is easy to remember and toss out to the evangelists who drop by my work. That’s going to make them grimace at me again.

  • http://chronos-tachyon.net/ Chronos

    Considering the deep connection between Shannon entropy and thermodynamic entropy, you could probably do a reasonable zeroth-order guesstimate of the total number of bits required to describe the current state of the universe, then compare that with a napkin calculation of the number of bits held in the synapses of a typical human brain.

    This, of course, completely glosses over the questions about what thermodynamic entropy means at the quantum mechanical level, or the implications of Bekenstein’s black hole entropy solution on the holographic nature of space-time, to take two widely diverging places where thermodynamic entropy turns into a mind-bender.

    But ignore all that. Assuming a globally isotropic and homogeneous universe on average, we could probably come up with a reasonable number that was within a few orders of magnitude. Again, napkin-level stuff, not a serious number, but good enough to make a wild stab at what this guy is asking. (Oh, and he’s still guessing way too damn high.)

    But the question he’s asking isn’t really the question that he wants to ask, is it? The vast majority of that information is wholly unknown to us, impossible to derive from our current knowledge, and yet completely and utterly useless and boring. It’s stuff like the kinetic energy of some proton somewhere in orbit around a planet we don’t know about orbiting a star we can’t resolve optically in some distant galaxy that looks like a smear in the sky from where we are. We don’t care. We turn information into meaning by filtering the information — that is, by deliberately ignoring the things that we don’t have the time to look at. Instead, we focus on the important parts: the fact that a given planet exists at all is far more interesting than any tidbit about the ~10^51 individual protons that comprise it, and the fact that a galaxy exists is far more important than any of the individual ~10^11 stars it contains.

    The funny thing about knowledge is that we don’t gain it in random order: we learn the most important bits of truth first, then move on to the less important parts. Truth discovery is not a random walk. If God existed, at least the one that Strachan would have us believe in, we would have scientifically proven it by now: if such a god existed, it would be impossible to not notice its existence, because it would be interfering in our lives.

    Ever play D&D? The gods intervene all the time in D&D. Oh, they might claim to be aloof and distant, but do something to piss one off and he/she gets in your face, fast. People pray to them, and receive magic spells as a reward. They summon angels and demons, or appear as avatars. Barring the insane, no characters are atheists in D&D. Many characters question the motives of the gods, and many doubt that they are worthy of worship, but nobody questions their existence.

    Yet, fundamentally, Strachan (and most theists in general) believes in a God that has similar abilities, and chooses to interact with the world in similar ways. He advocates a book that promises divine intervention on behalf of those who telepathically submit to a cosmic zombie. If the book were true, there would be no atheists. Full stop. There would be people who questioned whether or not we can trust a celestial zombie with the [Psionic] modifier and 30 Charisma. But nobody would doubt the zombie’s existence.

  • Mathew Wilder

    What explanatory power does the Christian God have over the FSM or IPU, exactly?

  • Leum

    The Christian God explains how one can equal three, whereas the IPU can merely explain how pink and invisibility may be simultaneously possessed.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    Polly,

    I wouldn’t even trust my OWN experiences if I had some reason to doubt the reliability of my faculties, e.g. fever, drugs, alcohol-induced stupor, blunt head-trauma, lack of sleep, etc.

    Well, surely you saw Lee Strobel’s so-called “Tough Questions” going around the atheosphere a few weeks ago. What sayest thou to WLC’s paraphrase of Plantinga?

    Mathew Wilder,

    What explanatory power does the Christian God have over the FSM or IPU, exactly?

    A better question is, What does the FSM purport to explain?

  • John Nernoff

    There’s a perspective of our place in the universe that is often not considered. The universe is some 13.7 billion years old and on a clock we have been here only during that last 5 minutes. Most people have encountered various analogies. The dinosaurs ruled for 175 million years; humans and their vaunted civilizations a mere 10,000 years. What if humans had evolved as they did 100 million years ago and continued? Would we be leaps and bounds more smarter, or would we still have Joe the Plumbers advising us? Would we possess much more than the.05% of information we possibly have now?

    We have made breathtaking strides in science, sure, but at this stage in our infancy we are still barely crawling. We can’t fix Hubble, our economy is a wreck, atomic weapons threaten us from barbarian tribes, we are flooding ourself off the planet and can’t face the cure or consequences, we think there is dark matter and dark energy but know nothing about this 75% or so of the universe.

    It seems, then, that a random examination of any habitable planet in the universe would, extrapolating from Earth’s history, not likely find intelligent life, but just dinosaurs or sea dwelling microorganisms. On the other hand there are billions if not trillions of planetary possibilities and it’s likely some entity out there would have vastly more knowledge than we have. What that knowledge refers to I have no idea.

  • DeAnna

    I think this article in Scientific American is connected to this question:

    Within Any Possible Universe, No Intellect Can Ever Know It All

    “David H. Wolpert, a physics-trained computer scientist…concludes, the universe lies beyond the grasp of any intellect, no matter how powerful, that could exist within the universe.”

    If a being is a part of the universe it is impossible for that being to know everything about the universe The article is aimed at the knowledge limit of ‘physical entities’ but I think the reasoning he is using could potentially be expanded to talk about supernatural entities/gods.

  • lpetrich

    That refers to knowing the state of every particle in the Universe. There’s no way that we can have that amount of knowledge, because the number of our distinguishable states is much less than the number of distinguishable states of the Universe.

    It’s like how one can show that it is impossible to write a data compressor that can losslessly compress every possible file — the number of possible original files will always be greater than the number of possible compressed files.

    In practice, we scrimp by ignoring lots of the more microscopic sorts of details and use average descriptions, something not usually covered by such perfect-knowledge theorems.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X