This is a revised version of a talk I gave to the Atheists’ Society in Melbourne, Australia, on 11 August 2015
People who don’t believe in the existence of God are sometimes asked by people who do believe in God, ‘What if you are wrong?’
The person who asks this question is probably implying that the other person will be in dire danger of eternal damnation after they die unless they abandon their disbelief. It’s more of a challenge than a question.
But also, a devout believer in God, Heaven and Hell might just be worried about a loved one who has just become an atheist. But I suppose it’s still a challenge.
I will discuss how serious this challenge really is for:
Believers in the existence of God.
I assume this covers almost everyone here.
In each case I will consider:
The belief that you may be wrong about,
What the questioner thinks is actually true,
The possible alternatives for each detail of each belief,
The probabilities of each possibility
The consequences of each alternative,
And who, if anyone, should be worried.
(I will discuss the consequences relating to the Abrahamic God, but not the kinds of gods that are more concerned with karma and reincarnation, i.e., with compassionate intent, than with particular beliefs about sex, food habits and worship.)
So, What if Atheists are wrong?
Atheists believe, or are strongly convinced, that there is nothing but the material world. There is no God or any other kind of supernatural entity, no immortal souls, no Heaven and no Hell.
The person who asks an Atheist ‘what if you are wrong’ thinks that some or all of these things exist, and that the Atheist is in danger of having a very uncomfortable time after death.
I think here is no hard evidence for any of this, and no proof against it, but I will now present the possibilities in the form of a series of steps.
If at any step the probability were actually zero, then the significance of all the following steps would automatically become zero. But assuming there is no evidence or proof, I will arbitrarily assign a probability of 50% to each step.
Here are the steps.
Step1: Is there a supernatural entity of any kind?
As I have assumed, there is a 50% chance that this is true. If it is not true, then Atheists have nothing to worry about after death.
Step 2: If there is some supernatural entity, do human beings have supernatural souls?
There is now 50% of a 50% chance, that is, 25%, that this is true. This means that the probability of damnation for Atheists is now 25%.
Step 3. Are these supernatural souls our real identity? 12.5%
Step 4. Do these supernatural souls remain in existence after the death of our bodies?
Step 5: Are these souls conscious after the death of our bodies?
Step 6: Are these conscious souls then susceptible to pain, anguish and discomfort?
So now we have considered at all the necessary things relating to the soul that need to be true if there is to be a possible punishment for dead Atheists. And at this stage, the chance of all the answers being YES is about 1.6% if the probability of each step is 50%. So there is a probability of 1.6% that Atheists will face damnation.
Neuroscientists would put the probability of Step 5, relating to consciousness, at very much lower than 50%, but, for the time being, I will still say we are now at 1.6%.
And now we will look at the issues relating to God.
Step 7: Is there is an all-knowing God?
Step 8: Does that God care about the actions of organisms in the various parts of the universe?
Step 9: Does that God want people who live on planet Earth to do particular things and/or abstain from doing particular things?
At this stage, the chance of all the answers being YES is slightly less than 0.2%, if the probability of each step is 50%.
Step 10: Is that all-knowing God able to give pleasure or pain to the individual conscious souls of dead people? If not, no one has any worries about the afterlife. If YES, the overall probability is now 0.1%.
Step 11: Is that God completely loving, understanding and forgiving?
In the answer is YES, then no one should have any worries about the afterlife. If No, the probability of damnation would be no more than 0.05%.
Step 12: Does that God take punitive action of any kind.
In NO, no one should have any worries about what happens after death. Presumably some people might expect some kind of pleasure, but the probability would be less than 0.025%. If the answer is YES, the probability of damnation would be now about 0.025%.
Step 13: Now there are two alternative possibilities.
Step 13.1: Is that God just?
In this case, if that just God is also the all-knowing creator, it would be pretty rough justice if there was any punishment for anything that we might have done. But, even at the worst, the probability of damnation would be a bit less than 0.007%.
Step 13.2: Is that God vindictive?
If YES, then, provided all the previous answers lined up, Atheists, Agnostics and almost everyone else would be in trouble, no matter what we believed.
So, overall, with the allocation of 50% for each step, the probability of danger of damnation for Atheists would be about 0.0125%, or pretty close to one chance in eight thousand. This is very low, but not zero. People buy tickets in lotteries where the chances are much less than one in eight thousand. Given the implied consequences, would Atheists think this probability is low enough to take the risk?
Of course Atheists think that all the adverse probabilities are zero. Agnostics, who are less convinced, might put some of the probabilities a bit higher, and believers in the supernatural will give high probabilities to all steps.
Although these probabilities, and the steps themselves, are all arbitrary, the process shows that a lot of beliefs have to be correct before Atheists are in trouble.
None of this discussion addressed whether Atheists might experience eternal bliss after their death. On the above analysis, their chances of bliss are a bit less their chances of damnation. But, even with the 50% for each step, the probability of oblivion is close to 99.9% for everyone.
What if Agnostics are wrong?
Agnostics have lower probabilities than Atheists. And there is the possibility that since Agnostics presumably tried to find the real truth and have not completely dismissed the possibility of the supernatural, they might warrant some leniency, however small that would be.
What if believers in a supernatural entity are wrong?
Because the beliefs across the religions are so diverse, it would seem to be illogical and unlikely for anyone to think that all religions were true.
An Atheist asking a believer the question ‘what if you are wrong’ would be implying that there is no supernatural entity.
Any particular believer in the supernatural who asked another believer could be implying that only their particular religion is true, and perhaps their sect and/or their interpretation is true. So they might be implying that a member of a different religion is in danger of having a very uncomfortable time after death. And, of course, some believers actually say that certain other believers are bound for hell. So a devout hard-line Presbyterian might be just as worried of her son embracing Catholicism as embracing atheism.
The expected alternative fates when Atheists and Agnostics were questioned were damnation or oblivion. For religious believers the expected alternatives are bliss or damnation, but generally not oblivion.
So, what are the probabilities for a believer in the supernatural? Remembering the absence of any evidence or proof, I will go through a slightly different series of steps.
But the first nine steps are the same. So starting with:
Step 1: Is there a supernatural entity of any kind?
And proceeding to
Step 9: Does that God want people who live on planet Earth to do particular things and/or abstain from doing particular things?
the probabilities would be the same as they were with the Atheists.
That is, if these nine steps each have a 50% probability, then at this stage the total probability of reaching anything but oblivion can be no better than about 0.2%.
But of course Supernaturalists would put the probabilities much higher. As a charitable Agnostic, I will let the Supernaturalists assume that the probability of bliss or damnation is now not a mere 0.2%, but 70%. But, as we shall soon see, this generosity still leads to a lower probability of bliss than most believers would expect. And at this stage, since bliss and damnation still have equal probabilities, the 70% means 35% bliss, 35% damnation and 30% oblivion.
So, continuing with the steps,
Step 10: Is the all-knowing God able to give pleasure or pain to the individual conscious souls of dead people? If not, no one has any worries about the afterlife, unless they don’t like the idea of oblivion.
Now we are down to 17.5% for bliss, 17.5% f or damnation, and a 65% chance of oblivion after death.
Step 11: Does that God want to be worshiped and served?
Step 12: Does that God want to be worshiped and served in a particular way, and/or want people to act in particular ways? Now we are down to 8.8%.
Step 13. Is that God completely loving, understanding and forgiving?
If the answer is YES, then no one should have any worries about damnation after death. The probability of bliss is 4.4%
Step 14. has three possible alternatives, which gives them equal probabilities of about 1.4%, adding up to about 4.4%.
Step 14.1 Is that God just?
If that just God was also the creator, then any punishment for anything that we might have done would be would be pretty rough justice. So, with a bias to leniency, about 0.7% bliss, 0.7% damnation.
Step 14.2: Does that God punish people who do not believe and act in particular ways? If not, the chance of bliss is 0.7%.
If so, has this particular believer picked the right religion, and the right interpretation of it? Given the very wide range of religions and interpretations, the chance of being right would be very small. But if 10% of the believers got it right, the overall chance of bliss would be 0.1% and the chance of damnation about 1.3%. This assumes that no one is condemned to nothingness as a softer punishment than damnation.
Step 14.3: Is that God vindictive?
In this case almost everyone would be in trouble, no matter what they believed, so with an answer of YES there would be a 0.7% chance of damnation,. There would be a 0.7% chance of bliss if the answer is NO.
With my generous allowance of 70% after Step 9, the overall probability of a believer obtaining bliss would be about 1.5% (two lots of a 0.7% and one of 0.01%). That is, about one chance in 65. The probability of damnation would be about 2.7%, and this leaves the probability of oblivion at about 95%. Of course believers would give themselves a much higher probability of bliss.
Again, the probabilities at each step are arbitrary. But whatever they are, the chances of damnation and bliss both seem pretty low, with some slight advantage for picking the right religion, sect and interpretation. And oblivion is still the most likely outcome.
What I am illustrating here is that the more complicated something is said to be, the more evidence is needed to justify its description. So whenever anything whose existence is conjectured, such as a supernatural entity, then every detail of any description of that thing will need evidence for the whole thing to be believable. If there is no hard evidence, then the improbabilities of each detail add up to an increasingly greater improbability, even if all the probabilities are put at 50-50.
This means that the probability of a believer of a religion being wrong is much greater than the probability of an Atheist being wrong. And the probability of an Agnostic being wrong is even less than that of an Atheist.
But now, having looked at the outcomes with arbitrary probabilities of 50%, I will see if there are any grounds for assigning any better probabilities. To assess the probability of anything it is necessary to have some information about any relevant conditions or influences. In the present issue I can see two kinds of relevant conditions:
- some matters for which there is good scientific evidence;
- and some matters that may be intrinsically beyond the reach of science.
The relevant matters for which I think there is good scientific evidence are:
- the evolution of all biological organisms from some very simple primitive microorganism;
- and the complete dependence of human consciousness on the condition of the brain
The relevant matters that I think may be intrinsically beyond science are:
- what makes the difference between inanimate matter and living matter?;
- what produces consciousness out of intelligence?;
- and what caused the beginning of the material world – which is sometimes expressed as why is there something instead of nothing?
Putting these together, I will now look at how they combine to affect the probabilities of some of the steps we have just gone through.
Life. If life is a purely material phenomenon, which it might not be, then there would be no need to attribute any supernatural aspect to it. If the scientifically inexplicable origin of life were to require that there be a supernatural explanation, then we might accept that there is some supernatural entity, and every organism, great or small, might require it during its lifetime. But that supernatural entity would not seem to be needed once the physical organism was unable to stay alive. This would make the probability of a soul continuing after death less than the 50% that I have allocated. Perhaps it should be much less than 25%.
All that we could say about such a supernatural entity is that it would be able to somehow make an appropriately structured piece of matter perform the functions needed for an organism to be alive. We can say nothing about such an entity being all-wise, or being a creator, let alone intervening or making judgments.
Since all organisms that have lived on Earth arose from some primitive life form, then either all living organisms would have some supernatural component, or no living organism would have a supernatural component. In other words, human beings would not be special. This is relevant to the next issue, Consciousness.
Consciousness. Consciousness is often confused with intelligence. All organisms need a degree of intelligence to survive. Intelligence is inherently different from consciousness, in that computers and mousetraps have some degree of intelligence, but they are not conscious. We can explain how the brain produces intelligence, but there is as yet no way that consciousness can be explained in material terms.
There are conditions under which people are said to “lose consciousness”. One such condition is when they go to sleep. But sleep is a complex thing, with different kinds of brain activity, sometimes without consciousness and sometimes with consciousness in the form of dreams. Other conditions whereby people lose consciousness are when they faint, or are in a coma, or are completely anaesthetised. All occasions of consciousness and all occasions of losing consciousness have to do with the functioning of the brain. If there were some supernatural partner that, along with the brain, produced consciousness, what would that partner be doing when someone lost consciousness? All it could do is wait for messages from the brain. If there ceased to be a functional brain, the partner would either wait “eternally” to be presented with something to be conscious of, or just subside into whatever it emerged from.
Presumably, any supernatural consciousness would be related to, and depend upon, the supernatural entity that might give life. Since that life-giving entity would have no need to continue after the death of its organism, there would be no need for its associated consciousness to continue.
And since the content of all consciousness is dependent on the conditions of a brain, I think the probability of a soul being conscious after the death of an organism would be close to zero, but for the sake of calculation, I will suggest about 0.1%, which is a lot less than the arbitrary 50% that was originally allotted.
All that we could say about such a supernatural entity is that it would be able to somehow make an appropriately structured piece of living matter able to have specific experiences, such as emotions, fear, boredom, moods, pain, vision, etc., while it was alive. All of these kinds of experiences would depend on the operations of organism’s brain, that is while there still was a brain capable of providing the sensation or thought.
Beginnings. The problem of beginnings, i.e. how can it be that there is something and not nothing, is different from that relating to organisms and the possibility of souls. The idea of beginnings relates to what we think about the concepts of time, and change and causation. It relates also to ideas of infinity and nothingness.
Proposed solutions to the problem are:
- that either the material world, or God, or both always existed;
- or that one of them always existed and probably created the other;
- or that one or both arose out of nothing.
None of these propositions says anything about the nature of God or any alternative supernatural entity. We might conjecture that God could avoid the need for the existence of time and/or causality and/or the laws of physics, but that says nothing about any other characteristics that God might have.
So we have reduced the probability of any divine interest in human and other organisms, and particularly any wishes concerning their behaviour. There is nothing to support the claim that such a supernatural entity had the characteristics of a recently evolved organism on a small planet of a middle-sized star in a galaxy of billions of stars in a universe with billions of galaxies. Any supernatural entity that might exist would very likely be hugely different from the one envisioned by human beings, and to have cosmic concerns rather than those of just one of the many organisms on this planet. Steps 7 to 11, which dealt with characteristics attributed to God, had an overall probability of 3% (i.e., five lots of 50% or one chance in 32). I would now put the probability at much less than 0.1% for these five steps.
Free Will. The concept of free will means that everyone of sound mind is able to choose what they think and do. There are some circumstances when someone is under such compulsion that they have no choice about how they act, but mostly they seem to have some degree of choice. It is this free will that justifies punishment for any thoughts or actions that are considered to be wrong.
But in a causal world, when all our thoughts and acts arise from the operation of a material brain, the concept of free will seems fallacious. For there to be free will, there would need to be a decision process that was not causal. Even pure chance is a causal process: its causes are just too complex or obscure to be identified. No decision made at random – if there were to be a process that was truly random – could be an act of will. So, unless there is some other kind of process that is not causal, there would be no such thing as free will.
If there is no free will there is nothing to warrant reward or punishment, in this or any other life. While I would put the probability of there being any free will at very close to zero, I will concede a probability of 0.5%.
When I had the probability of every step at 50%, the overall probability of Atheists having to suffer after death came out as about one chance in eight thousand. Now, having looked at the evidence and applied new probabilities according to the evidence, I think the probability of Atheists having to suffer after death becomes much less than one chance in ten billion. This is still, of course, guesswork, but at least there is something to go on.
Also there would be similar probabilities of obtaining damnation or bliss for all the kinds of believers in God and for Atheists and Agnostics. And the probability of oblivion seems to be greater than 99.9999% for everybody.
Some Atheists or Agnostics might feel that the probability of damnation, however small it seemed, was still too high for them to take the risk. But how would they choose a safe alternative belief? There are too many alternatives, and they all bear greater risk than the Atheists and Agnostics.
All this shows that when we are talking about supernatural matters, where there is no evidence, the probabilities and consequences of being wrong are quite uncertain. They are also much less worrying than some people would like to believe. There will, of course, be no agreement about who was right. And the probability of finding out, which would occur only after death, seems to be very, very small.
All of this applies to only one species of life on Earth, Homo sapiens. I am unable to see how the prospects for other species on Earth might be assessed, and also for any forms of life that might occur elsewhere in the universe.