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 non-believer 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 because the questioner will believe that people have eternal souls that constitute the essence of their being.
But a devout believer in God, Heaven and Hell might just be worried about a loved one who is an atheist. But I suppose it’s still a challenge.
I will consider the consequences of disbelief, but relating only to disbelief of the Abrahamic God, and will discuss how serious this challenge really is for
Believers in the existence of God.
What will unfold will be:
The details of the belief that you may be wrong about,
What the questioner thinks is actually true,
The possible after-death alternatives for the belief,
The probabilities of each possibility
And who, if anyone, should be worried.
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 there is no hard evidence for any of this. I will present the possibilities in the form of a series of steps, each containing a question requiring either YES or NO as the answer. If at any step the probability favouring the belief were actually zero, then the significance of all the subsequent steps that depend on it would automatically become zero. To avoid any appearance of bias I will tentatively assign a probability of 50% to each step.
Step1: Is there a supernatural entity of any kind?
The 50% chance means a 50% chance that Atheists are in trouble after death is no greater than 50%, and the chance of oblivion 50%. But the actual probabilities will depend on the combined probabilities of all of the steps.
Step 2: If there is some supernatural entity, do human beings have supernatural souls?
There is now 50% of a 50% chance of damnation for Atheists, that is, no greater than 25%. Since the only expected alternative outcome is oblivion, the probability of oblivion is about 75%.
Step 3. Are these supernatural souls our real identity? The chance of damnation is now no greater than 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?
Having now considered all the things relating to the soul that need to be true if there is to be punishment for dead Atheists, there is at this stage, about a 3% chance of consciousness, with the chance of damnation being no greater than 1.6% , if the probability at each step is 50%.
Neuroscientists would put the probabilities at each of Steps 3, 4 and 5, to be very much lower than 50%, but for the moment I will still say we are now at 1.6%.
There are also issues relating to God.
Step 7: Is there is a God of the universe?
Step 8. Is that God omniscient?
Step 9: Does that God care about the actions of organisms in the various parts of the universe?
Step 10: 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, and the chance of damnation is no greater than slightly less than 0.1%,
Step 11: Is that omniscient God able to give pleasure or pain to the individual conscious souls of dead people? If YES, the overall probability is now no greater than 0.05%.
Step 12: Is that omniscient God completely loving, understanding and forgiving?
In the answer is YES, then no one should have any worries about any possible afterlife. If NO, the probability of damnation would be no greater than 0.025%. The chance of oblivion is now about 99.975%.
Step 13: Does that God take punitive action of any kind.
In NO, no one should have any worries about what happens after death. Some people might expect some kind of pleasure, but the probability of this would be no greater than 0.012%.
If the answer is YES, the probability of damnation would be now no greater than 0.012%. But there is religious ambiguity between this and the previous step. The scriptures say that God is completely knowing, loving and understanding, but also very punishing. So God might take more account of deeds than of beliefs or singing hymns, and if the assigned probability of this is to be 50%, the chance of damnation would be no greater than 0.006%. .
Step 13a: Is that God vindictive?
If YES, then the probability of damnation for Atheists stays at 0.006%, and the punishment might be more severe. If NO, the chance of damnation is now no greater than 0.003%.
So, overall, with the allocation of 50% for each step, the probability of damnation for Atheists would be no greater than one chance in about thirty thousand. This is very low, but not zero. People buy tickets in lotteries where the chances are much less, but if they don’t win the cost is just the price of their tickets and not damnation. Given the implied consequences, would Atheists think this probability of damnation is low enough to take the risk? That would depend on what, if anything, they thought they might have to do to save them.
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.
Atheists do not accept that the probabilities are 50%. They would put most of them at zero or very close to zero. To get a more realistic estimate, the probabilities of some steps need to be reviewed.
But before doing this I will look at the fates of dead Agnostics and of dead Supernaturalists, i.e., of believers in the supernatural, with the same “unbiased” probabilities of 50%.
The expected alternative fates for Agnostics would be about the same as for Atheists – oblivion or damnation. Perhaps they might get some consideration for not completely denying the existence of God.
For Supernaturalists the expected alternatives are bliss or damnation, or perhaps reincarnation, but generally not oblivion.
The beliefs across the religions are very diverse, so at least some of them would be untrue. There are at least three named religions, each of which has several sects. And there are conflicting interpretations of the sacred texts. Some believers actually say that certain other believers are bound for hell.
Despite this diversity, for Supernaturalists the first 12 steps are the same as for Atheists. So starting with:
Step 1: Is there a supernatural entity of any kind? ,
I will immediately proceed to
Step 12: Is that God completely loving, understanding and forgiving?
In the answer is YES, then no one should have any worries about any possible afterlife. If NO, the probability of damnation would be no greater than 0.025%.
But instead of the probability of 0.025 relating to damnation, it now relates to either bliss or damnation, with the chance of each being no greater than 0.0125%.
Step 13. Does that God punish people who do not believe and act in particular ways?
If NO, the chance for each of bliss and damnation is 0.003%. As with Step 13 for Atheists, there is religious ambiguity between this and the previous step: the scriptures say that God is completely knowing, loving and understanding, but also very punishing
Step 13a: Is that God vindictive?
If YES, then the probability of damnation stays at 0.003%, the punishment might be more severe, and there is no chance of bliss. If NO, the chances of bliss and damnation are each no greater than 0.0015%.
Step 14. 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. It would be generous to assume that 10% of the believers got it right, but that is what I will do. For them the chances would be the same as in Step 13a. But, irrespective of what they believed, no one would know whether they were in that 10%. So the actual overall “unbiased” chance of bliss would be 0.00015%, and for damnation about 0.014%. This assumes that no one is condemned to oblivion as a softer punishment than damnation, but the difference is negligible. The chance of oblivion is 99.9985%.
This means that believers would fare slightly better than Atheists as far as damnation is concerned. This is because the alternative to oblivion is now shared between bliss and damnation. But the difference is negligible. Their chances of bliss are a lot less than what they are hoping for.
Oblivion is by far the most likely outcome for everyone.
Of course believers would give themselves a much higher probability of bliss. Atheists would give them much less, but the chance of bliss is already negligible..
This has all been guesswork and the choice of steps has been somewhat arbitrary. But that does not mean it should be summarily dismissed. It illustrates that the more complicated something is said to be, the more evidence is needed to justify its description. The reliability of the description depends on the probabilities.
How reasonable is the 50% probability for each step?
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 can we say about any possible supernatural entity?
- 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.
What can we say about the supernatural? – All that we could say about any supernatural entity would be conjecture derived from what we think we know about the material and that seem to be beyond the capabilities of the material world. One relevant thing that we know about is the enormous size of the universe and the extremely insignificant role the earth and its life forms have in the universe. If the supernatural entity were to be at least as great as the universe, the actions of one, and only one, of the millions of recently evolved organisms on Earth would have no significance whatever. So that would seem to dispose of bliss and damnation. I have never heard of an all-knowing God whose territory is restricted to just a small part of the universe.
Life – We might think that think that, since the statistical probability of life emerging from inanimate material is so remotely small, there would have needed a supernatural entity to produce at least the first organism, and perhaps provide for its evolution. We can say nothing about such an entity being all-wise, or being a creator, let alone intervening or making judgments.
And this does not imply the existence of a soul, let alone an immortal soul continuing after death So the 50% that I have allocated was very generous.
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. The only other possible evidence for a soul is 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 there is no reason to assume they are 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 this says 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. It does not justify the acceptance of an immortal soul.
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 to 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 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 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 eighty million. 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 99.999% 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 about the same risk as 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.