Probability and Faith

Chief Rabbi (UK) Sir Jonathan Sacks

[The following piece appeared in the Times of London late last month. In the mind of one of the senior contributors to this blog, it is as good as it gets in making the modern case for belief. – YA]

We owe a great debt to the British Humanist Association for their advertising campaign on buses: ‘There’s probably no God.’ It’s thought-provoking in a helpful way, because it invites us to reflect not only on God but also on probability.

One of the most unexpected discoveries of modern science is the sheer improbability of the universe. It is shaped by six fundamental forces which, had they varied by a millionth or trillionth degree, the universe would have expanded or imploded in such a way as to preclude the formation of stars and planets. Unless we assume the existence of a million or trillion other universes (itself rather a large leap of faith), the fact that there is a universe at all is massively improbable.

So is the existence of life. Among the hundred billion galaxies each with a hundred billion stars, only one planet thus far known to us, earth, seems finely tuned for the emergence of life. And by what intermediate stages did non-life become life? There is a monumental gap between inanimate matter and the most primitive life-form, bacteria, the simplest of which, mycoplasma, contains 470 genes. It’s a puzzle ­– so improbable that Francis Crick was forced to argue that it was born somewhere else, Mars perhaps, and came here via meteorite, thus making the mystery yet more mysterious.

How did life become sentient? And how did sentience grow to become self- consciousness, that strange gift, known only to Homo sapiens, that allows us to ask the question ‘Why?’ So many improbabilities had to happen that Stephen J Gould came to the conclusion that if the process of evolution were run again from the beginning it is doubtful whether Homo sapiens would ever have been born.

You don’t have to be religious to have a sense of awe at the sheer improbability of things. A few weeks ago James le Fanu published a book Why Us? In it he argues that we are about to undergo a paradigm shift in scientific understanding. The complexities of the genome, the emergence of the first multi-cellular life forms, the origins of Homo sapiens and our prodigiously enlarged brain: all these and more are too subtle to be accounted for on reductive, materialist, Darwinian science.

A week later Michael Brooks brought out Thirteen things that don’t make sense, the most important being human free will. The more science we learn, the more we understand how little we understand. The improbabilities keep multiplying, as does our cause for wonder.

And that’s just at the level of science. What about history? How probable is it that one man who performed no miracles and wielded no power, Abraham, would become the most influential figure who ever lived, with more than half of the six billion people alive today tracing their spiritual descent to him?

How probable is it that a tiny people, the children of Israel, known today as Jews, numbering less than a fifth of a per cent of the population of the world, would outlive every empire that sought its destruction? Or that a small, persecuted sect known as the Christians would one day become the largest movement of any kind in the world?

How probable is it that slavery would be abolished, that tyrannies would fall, that apartheid would end and that an African-American would be elected President of the United States? Everything interesting in life, the universe and the whole shebang is improbable, as Nicholas Taleb reminds us in The Black Swan, subtitled ‘The Impact of the Highly Improbable’. The book’s title is drawn from the fact that people were convinced that, since no one had ever seen a black swan, they did not exist – until someone discovered Australia.

The most interesting improbability of them all is that the man who invented probability theory, a brilliant young mathematician called Blaise Pascal, decided at the age of thirty to give up mathematics and science and devote the rest of his life to the exploration of religious faith.

Faith is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility. The prophets dreamed the improbable and by doing so helped bring it about. All the great human achievements, in art and science as well as the life of the spirit, came through people who ignored the probable and had faith in the possible.

So the bus advertisement would be improved by a small amendment. Instead of saying ‘There’s probably no God’, it should read: Improbably, there is a God.

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8 Responses

  1. David N. Friedman says:

    Things that “defy explanation” comprise such a huge percentage of scientific investigation, Rabbi Sacks is right on the mark with this column.

    Jews need to regain needed pride in our message to humanity. Hashem is one and he is the Creator.

  2. Nathan says:

    The three quotes shown below are from:

    The Science of Star Wars by Jeanne Cavelos, 1999,
    St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, ISBN 0-312-26387-2.

    QUOTE 1: Chapter 1, Page 17:

    Consider the huge number of favorable conditions that
    combined to allow the development of life on Earth.
    The conjunction of so many characteristics must be
    extremely rare.

    QUOTE 2: Chapter 1, Page 18:

    Characteristics include:
    (1) heavy elements like carbon and oxygen
    (2) a planet with a moderate speed of rotation
    (3) a planet with a strong magnetic field
    (4) a planet massive enough to hold an atmosphere
    (5) a planet with liquid water

    QUOTE 3: Chapter 1, Page 19:

    I could go on, and many have, writing entire books
    on all the factors necessary to the development of life.

    Jeanne Cavelos began her professional life as
    an astrophysicist and mathematician, teaching
    astronomy at Michigan State University and
    Cornell University, and working at the Astronaut
    Training Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

  3. G Josephs says:

    “So the bus advertisement would be improved by a small amendment. Instead of saying ‘There’s probably no God’, it should read: Improbably, there is a God.”

    In the interests of accuracy, it should be pointed out that Rabbi Sacks makes an unwarranted leap here. In his article, Rabbi Sacks points out that very improbable things have happened, and no doubt will continue to happen. What Sacks shows is that very improbable things can quite easily happen. Therefore instead of saying ‘There’s probably no God’, the bus sign (according to Sacks) should read: ‘It’s improbable for there to be a God, but then again, improbable things happen all the time’. Which is very different than saying ‘Improbably, there is a God.’

  4. Natan Slifkin says:

    Rabbi Sack’s article was excellent. In the comments on the Times website, a few people criticized it with arguments such as the following:
    “As Douglas Adams put it, that’s the same as a puddle of water saying ‘Wow, what are the chances that millennia of tectonic activity and erosion would shape a hole in the ground that is the same shape as me!”
    Such criticisms make the fundamental error of not distinguishing between events that are qualitatively unique and those that aren’t. The universe is a very special type of universe: it contains matter, planetary systems, life, and intelligence. (In the previous example, the analogy would be to a puddle in the shape of a sentence.) The overwhelming majority of configurations of the basic forces in nature would not result in anything remotely as complex and significant.
    With history, the argument becomes more complex; there are always going to be some unusual events. Still, one can certainly make a case for saying that the quantitative and qualitative degree of unusualness with the history of the Jewish People calls for an explanation beyond the vagaries of chance.
    Strangely, when I submitted the above comment to the Times website, they didn’t let it be posted.

  5. Raymond says:

    Just to start off with a side note, I have read some of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ books, and from a purely literary perspective, he definitely does have a way with words. He is to books what Tony Blair is to public speaking: so captivating is their mastery of the English language, that I almost forget to pay attention to what they are actually saying.

    Moving on to the content of what Rabbi Sacks said, I realize that our universe and the existence not only of life, but of conscious life, are improbabilities so great, that it is beyond the understanding of the vast majority of us. However, to then claim that therefore there must be a G-d, is to fall into the centuries-old trap of putting G-d into places not yet explained by science. It may not happen for many thousands of years, but what happens if and when science does manage to explain those mysteries through entirely naturalistic means? That is what Darwin did in the areas he explored, and look at how much his ideas have gone a long way in destroying traditional religious faith or at least our previous exalted view of Man.

    I will acknowledge that trying to explain the survival of our Jewish people may be quite another matter. I am not sure that science can play that significant a role in the study and interpretation of human history. I seem to recall that when somebody approached Voltaire of all people, who himself was an antisemite, asking him to prove the existence of G-d, he simply said, “The Jews.”

    Yet again, even if it is not as subject to scientific scrutiny as the ways of the universe may be, I have to wonder if one day, naturalistic explanations will be found for our ability to survive and thrive all of these centuries. There is a brilliant Black economics professor named Thomas Sowell who has written many indispensable books definitely worth reading, in which he seeks to do exactly this kind of thing, although so far he has not done this specifically with the question of Jewish survival. Ernest von Den Haag wrote such a book, called the Jewish Mystique, but it has been so many years since I read it, that I will not comment on it here.

    The point is, that if we use G-d as a way of filling in the gaps of our areas of ignorance, then it is almost guaranteed that we are eventually rendering G-d to be nothing but an unnecessary hypothesis.

  6. Joel Rich says:

    Faith is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility.
    WADR to R’ Sacks I would say (as a practicing actuary) that Faith is the reconition of God running the world behind those probabilities (or to paraphrase Einstein – God does run the world with dice – he just loads them when needed)
    Joel Rich

  7. Shmuel says:

    Thank you for posting Rabbi Sack’s article. It should be required reading in all high schools, where it could also be used as a springboard to discuss various hashkafa issues such as ” Hasgocha Pratis” “Sechar V’Onish” etc.

  8. One Christian's perspective says:

    “Faith is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility.”
    – Chief Rabbi (UK) Sir Jonathan Sacks

    Praise God for granting Rabbi Sacks such wisdom and thank you for publishing such a great commentary on the power of God.

    I, too, have found Rabbi Sacks statement interesting. In humility and thanks to God, I confess that for me, “faith is the possibility that we can know God because He set the stage in the beginning when He said “Let there be light” before the sun, moon and stars were created. I believe God selected His children in eternity past and revealed Himself to them at His appointed time. God is the giver of light as He is light. He said to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy”. I believe that faith is a gift from God who in His perfect timing has allowed His children to receive so they can see Him in His light to the extent that they are able and that He allows. Faith is the defeat of man’s doubt by the power of God’s presence/Spirit that changes our heart of stone to flesh and allows us the freedom to trust Him completely…..even when it appears our world is crumbling around us. Faith grows when tested and we trust in God with all our heart. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. With God we can say in confidence, He is, He can, He does and He will.
    History is a done deal.

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