The 98% Atheist

Why you’re never too sure

No one can be certain or otherwise about the existence of God, unless you define God. If you mean a God who is eternally retributive rather than reformative (as is the case with all Abrahamic belief systems), common sense and the modern concept of morality negates the possibility of such an ignoble God. Hindus speak of a God who is reformative rather than vengeful, but is fiercely racist and casteist which makes good sense to dislodge him from the pedestal of Godhood. Elitist Hindus might come up with another God – the Supreme Soul – who identifies himself with all individual souls and is without anger or joy, love or hatred, devoid of all attributes (Shivoham – I am God), a concept which verges on atheism.

Richard Dawkins, who wrote the Selfish Gene (1976) and the Blind Watchmaker (1986), thus doing the background work towards establishing a scientific proof for atheism, directly attacked the concept of God in his more recent work, The God Delusion (2006). He based nearly all his arguments on the terrible acts of God of the Old Testament, describing Him as “ arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”1 He had sufficient evidences in the Bible to substantiate those intimidating adjectives. Dawkins did not have much idea about other Gods. Yet he concludes with the argument that almost certainly there is no God. Doesn’t that mean that the man who founded and runs a foundation to support atheism is only 98% certain?

Most nay-sayers base their argument on scientific precepts. Nothing in science is 100% certain. Science works on the principle of amplitude of probability (though that came to be accepted after Quantum physics came into existence.). On classic situations, most theories work very well. On a high-extreme situation, some of these theories would seem to break down. Then you find the need to superimpose Einstein on Newton. When you go to the other extreme, the pico-scopic situation, you find the need for several scientists – Neil Bohr, Louis Brogile, Erwin Schrodinger, Paul Dirac and several more formulating a theory – Quantum Mechanics – that is barely understood, but offers beautiful solutions nevertheless. Basically, the new theory stands on the principle of amplitude of probability – higher the probability, better the solution. Come to think of it, we plan our strictest appointments, the pilot announces the arrival time, the odometer reading on your car’s dashboard, the efficacy of the tablet you swallow – nearly everything in life is based on the amplitude of probability. In each case, a 98% amplitude of probability is good enough.

So the question boils down to this: Which has a better amplitude of probability – existence of God or non-existence?

In scientific line of thinking, the universe can run without a supervisor overseeing it.  Science finds no proof that there is life for an individual after death, or that there are such things as heaven or hell. The sum total of this line of thought process is that there are no good enough reasons to believe in a being called God. There is no proof either of reincarnation – that you would exist with the same mental personality (memories, processing power – what else is personality minus the body?) in another realm, or as Hinduism suggests, in another body. Investigations have found no incontrovertible proof that such things exist. Science has sufficient reasons to show that claims such as Near-death experiences, regressed memories of another life, psychic powers, seance meetings, communication through mediums, automatic writing etc. are delusional psychology at work. Modern science recognizes what ancient philosophers (called sages) of the East suggested many aeons ago –  that what you perceive is not exactly what exists outside your physical being, but what is recorded into several layers of your mind. In your dreams, even in the waking minds of some, the layers can get mixed up.  At the best of times, reality is delusional. Mirage contains no water, the blue sky everyone sees is not a roof without pillars. The black fish you see swimming in the air is a floater in your eyes. The movie you watch is a group of three colour LEDs being switched on and off progressively from left to right and top to bottom on the television screen. Looking back in your life, you cannot always be sure whether a particular episode you remember vividly was a dream or a real occurrence.

Is the highest amplitude or probability the 100% answer for everything you observe in nature? No. An easy way out is to attribute everything to an invisible God. Who knows, God knows. A harder way is to observe a phenomenon in nature, ruminate over it and build a hypothesis on how the phenomenon one observed acts the way it does, and then try out the hypothesis with simulated experiments. Many of the hypotheses you cannot try out by physical experimentation, you work out with mathematics. When the hypothesis appears to be substantiated by the outcome of your experimentation or as a result of your calculations, you have a scientific theory, which you say is right unless it is falsified by another experiment conducted within the specified conditions, or by another set of computations.

Scientific theories are conditional, even if the conditions are not stated explicitly.  For example, the theory of conservation of mass, which works perfectly in every experiment you might conduct or things you might do, fails when the mass in motion approaches the speed of light.  Even mathematical proofs are based on a priori axioms. If the axioms are wrong or not applicable in a given set of circumstances (as in the case of conservation of mass), then the theory falls flat. In your everyday experiences, you give a hoot to Einstein’s idea of space-time curvature, but find it profoundly precise when it comes to designing a GPS system.

The modern scientific proposal that there could be eleven, not four, dimensions including time, that our universe could be one of the zillion universes that burst forth from Big Bangs, that there could be the an opposite (negative) version of yourself in a universe that is negative to your universe somewhere out there and so on – are based on the assumption that the fundamental matter that makes up our world are tiny strings. Super-String Theory is science, but is not ratified by at least fifty per cent of scientists related to that realm of science. Yet someone can only falsify it by showing that if String Theory is true, then the universe will not look like, or behave like the way it does. As it stands, a looped string such as the one proposed by theorists (a foremost proponent being Professor Ashoke Sen of India), can explain everything. However, quarks without a brickwork of strings can explain things just as well. You might say string theory has an amplitude of 60% as it stands today, when it approaches 98% of probability, then you can search for the unexplored seven dimensions without having to resort to vague explanations like they are all wound up into tiny circles

Many such theories were falsified with newer findings or the emergence of superior concepts in the light of new findings. Science had no hesitation (no doubt after hot debates and much heartburn,) in rejecting the old concepts. Lord Eddington, a great scientist whom Subramaniam Chandrasekar wished to be his mentor, never agreed to latter’s mathematical conclusion (arrived on the back of envelopes aboard a steam ship) that led to the finding of black holes. Yet in the end (after Eddington, who sulked through his life on Chandrasekhar) Chandrasekhar was proved right when black holes could be physically observed, not just as a theoretical concept . Yet we know that scientific findings always leave room for improvement.
Einstein had improved on Newtons’ theory, which went to show that despite all the practical observations we have had through more than 3 centuries and all those space flights and micro-gravity experiences in space, Newton was not 100% right. Further experiments and theories might prove that even Einstein was only 98% right.

Aristotle and many later philosopher-scientists believed in the theory of spontaneous generation (notwithstanding Genesis which said God made all beings in six days, and never again). Jean Baptiste Van Helmont, a physician, chemist, and the first scientist to analyse air as a composition of several gases (and to coin the word gas), found a rat inside a box where he had casually flung a soiled shirt. There were a few grains of wheat in the box, which presumably was used to contain wheat before. A few weeks later he found a rat inside the box – no grains, only a few shreds of the soiled shirt. It fitted well with the spontaneous generation theory. In all probability, Dr. Van Helmont, being a scientist, tried the experiment again, twice or three times, deliberately, and lo, there was a rat every time in the box! (Try it yourself. It might work. If not a rat, you could find several cockroaches). Till his death, the great man believed (100%) that the leaven (yeast, much later came to be known as bacteria), evolved into a rat over a fixed period of 21 days. One should really consider this as the first theory of evolution if it wasn’t for the wrong basic assumption. Dr. Van Helmont also made ‘successful’ experiments generating scorpions from basil placed in the indentations of two bricks placed one over the other. Now we know that spontaneous generation is a theory which can be falsified by placing the soiled shirt and wheat grains  in a box in a house where there are no rats. Yet  respect for Van Helmond’s other findings has not diminished.

Now we know better; we also know that there is no such thing as 100% certainty where too many variables are involved – as is the case with this universe of ours. With so much data available from satellites as well as ground observatories, meteorology has become a very mature science. Yet its predictions are seldom better than 90% accurate. The exact effects of el nino in weather patterns in the pacific region and beyond is still speculation rather than conclusion.

Science adds the term falsifiability as a proof of any theory. The phrase means:  prove me wrong, then you could be right.  Gravitational theory, proved right and absolutely right all these years since Newton, would break down, once and for all,  if one day you hold up a bottle of water a couple of feet above your dining table, saying a prayer to your God that it stays suspended, not crashing down on the table after you let go. If you succeed, you prove that miracles that do not obey the laws of nature do exist, and hence the miracle maker – God – exists. Such an occurrence has not happened till now; gravity, not God, has always won.

Science has found no reason to believe that prayers are answered – recall the Templeton experiment designed to prove that they are. There is no  proof of another world or the magnificent heaven above the sky or a terrible hell down below.  We don’t even accept that sky is a ‘firmament;’ the word to us simply means the upper layers of our atmosphere which absorbs all colours of sunlight reflected back to space by earth, but returns the high frequency, high-energy blue light . Scriptures speak of hell with such earthly materials as fire, brimstone, boiling water and pus from festered wounds, even pools of human excreta, but there is absolutely no proof that such things can exist outside our earth. Hence anyone who has a scientific bend of mind has reason to state (as I do) that the amplitude of probability is much higher that there is no God, at least of a God defined by religious scriptures.

If you were brainwashed through childhood to believe that the Bible, Quran or the Gita has the highest amplitude of probability, you are not likely to give up on your 98% belief in a fictitious God. Yet you will also continue to take solace in the 2% of improbability when you steal, get into your neighbour’s bed or bear false witness.

[1] <Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Audible version, read by Richard Dawkins and Lala Ward.

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