Article in Notices of the American Mathematical Society

There’s a first time for everything.

I recently wrote an article for the February, 2008 edition of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society academic journal.

I can’t believe it either.

What does this have to do with atheism?

I teach math. I wrote a book. I blog about atheism.

So my article is a review of two books that attempt to apply math to questions about the nature of God.

The books are The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth by Stephen Unwin and Superior Beings: If They Exist, How Would We Know? by Steven Brams.

A preview:

Here is the mother of all spoilers: The probability that the monotheistic, prayer-answering God exists is… 67%.

Incidentally, Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, calls the book “innovative” and “an entertaining exercise in thinking.” When Shermer plugged in his own numbers… into Unwin’s equation, he found that the probability of God was only 2%. All of Shermer’s values were the same or lower than Unwin’s, but it goes to show how the method described in this book can produce wildly varied results.

You can read my article here (PDF).

And if you’re especially courageous, you can read the entire February, 2008 issue of the Notices here (PDF… takes a while to load).


[tags]atheist, athiesm[/tags]

  • Kate

    I teach match.

    Clearly, you don’t teach English. ;)

    I’m kidding, Hemant!!!!!! :)

  • Siamang

    Ahh… I got a better calculation:

    3×2=6.

    What it lacks in answering the deep questions about the universe, it makes up for in the total lack of having been pulled out of my ass.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Clearly, you don’t teach English. ;)

    I’m kidding, Hemant!!!!!! :)

    Curse you for catching my typo! It’s been fixed. So now you just look foolish. :)

  • Darryl

    Siamang, as usual, short and sweet!

  • Kate

    Hahaha I don’t mind looking foolish.

    Also, I thought the answer was 42.

    ….right????

  • http://dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    Awesome.

    I remember an appalling article that was doing the rounds of the news services a couple of years ago, where some guy claimed the probability of Christianity being wrong was about 1 in 1000. The first step: “Either God exists, or he doesn’t. So that’s a 50% chance.” (Unfortunately I can’t justify the obvious contradiction there because my brain has blotted out the rest of the details.)

    Anyone remember that or have a link to it?

    Edit: here we go: http://www.gateway.net/news/package.jsp?name=fte/resurrection/resurrection&floc=GW_home_Sun_04_01

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    The very idea of calculating probability of something with nearly an infinite number of unknowns, all based off of a universe we don’t know and may never know the likihood of in any respect, is utterly ludicrous.

    You’re underselling how positively idiotic it is to posit that the probability of something existing or not is 50%. This just makes no sense at all. The probability of an unknown and possibly unknowable thing existing that you have no proof for the existence is UNKNOWN. End of story. Book over. Saying “well we have to make up a number or else this wouldn’t be any fun” is precisely zero excuse for such sophistry and pure innumeracy. The fact that someone who claims to understand probability theory is proposing that we calculate odds of existential questions is simply shocking: it’s as bad as a math PhD. proposing that we can calculate the odds of rolling a 6 on a die… without knowing anything about how many sides the die has, how it’s loaded, or even what numbers are on each side. Such a person would get laughed out of academia. But apparently, slap “religion” on the exact same nonsense claim, and you’re moving up in the world.

    Unwin’s book sounds just as embarrassing as I could have imagined any book in which an author tries to go way out of their field, and ends up making outrageously rookie mistakes one wouldn’t expect from a first year philosophy student.

  • http://dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    Hemant, quick question about the example you gave from Unwin’s book: how does he justify that the supreme being’s “secondary goal is to not reveal Himself”? I’m curious, but not curious enough to actually read the book. :)

  • Susan B.

    Is it a sign of how much of a geek I am that I’m more excited by the fact that you’re writing articles in math publications than that you’ve written a book?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Hemant, quick question about the example you gave from Unwin’s book: how does he justify that the supreme being’s “secondary goal is to not reveal Himself”? I’m curious, but not curious enough to actually read the book. :)

    You’re referring to Brams, not Unwin! And I’d have to go back and check what the justification was (the book isn’t anywhere near me this weekend)…

    Is it a sign of how much of a geek I am that I’m more excited by the fact that you’re writing articles in math publications than that you’ve written a book?

    Yes. Yes it is. And I’m in the geek boat with you :)

  • Richard Wade

    The probability that the monotheistic, prayer-answering God exists is… 67%.

    Pascalians will be crowing about that one, I’ll uh,….wager.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I don’t think assigning a probability of 50% is completely ludicrous. The idea is that you must start with some number, then put it through Bayes’ theory. If you start with 50% and end up with 99.999%, then it doesn’t really matter that you plugged in an artificial starting number. On the other hand, if you start with 50% and end up with 67% (or 2%), I’d say this particular analysis was inconclusive, since it heavily relies on your initial number.

  • http://dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    You’re referring to Brams, not Unwin!

    Oops. Indeed I am. I think I quickly skimmed for names on the same page and my eye landed on “Unwin” in the opposite column.

    Then again… it was either Brams or Unwin, so there’s a 50% chance that it was Unwin, right? Right? ;)

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com NYCatheist

    Math and God and no one has mentioned John Allen Paulos’s new book?

    http://www.math.temple.edu/~paulos/irrel-revs.html

    See him read an excerpt here:

    http://thesciencenetwork.org/BeyondBelief2/watch/paulos.php

    (There are many other good videos from that conference there too.)

  • cautious

    Congratulations on the book review in Notices!

  • Milena

    Oh my. It seems I just can’t escape math today, no matter how much I don’t want to study for my exam (which incidentally features a lot of probability… which hurts my head). Although, at least I understand the whole concept behind matrices better now. Thanks, Hemant. =)

  • Miko

    Confession: When I read that article in the print edition, I had no clue who the author of it was.

  • Allison

    Hemant, as a girl in the geek boat with you (I’m a mathematician)……..Cool! I didn’t know you were a fellow math geek! Congratulations on getting your article accepted. And yeah, most of us think anyone who’s decided he or she has come up with a real proof that God exists or doesn’t is kinda nuts and is pulling numbers out of his or her nether regions.

    On a note completely unrelated to this article, you have a way to meet female atheists. Get yourself to some math conferences, for crying out loud! Seriously, the last time I managed to read stats about it, a huge portion (well over 90%) of math chicks married mathematicians or scientists.


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