Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Faith, Prosperity, and Probability

Before wandering into some reading of Rob Bell, I'm taking a detour.

My recent completion of statistician Nate Silver's book clued me in to the existence of Thomas Bayes, an 18th century Presbyterian pastor/theologian/ mathematician/ wakeboarder.  Well, the wakeboarding thing is admittedly speculative, but we know so little about Bayes.  He is largely lost to history, having left us only two written works.  Even this picture of him isn't certain.  It might be him.  It might not.   It is also possible that he looked like this.  We're just not sure.  That this image is possibly him is sort of ironic.  Why?

One of those works gave the world Bayes Theorem, the probabilistic equation that has become the touchstone for all modern predictive statistics.   Bayes Theorem helps us account for the inherent uncertainty in all prediction.  I'm not so much interested in that one, not because it's not cool, but because it's not what floats my boat.

What I've found fascinating in doing more research on Bayes is that his work on probability appears to have arisen from a monograph on the sovereignty of God.   Back when I was a lad, obscure 18th Century monographs used to be hard to find, but Lord Bless The Internet, this is now some seriously public domain stuff.  So I went out and found a free eBook version and downloaded it to my Kindle.

It's got a typically catchy 18th century title:  Divine Benevolence, or an Attempt to Prove That the Principal End of the Divine Providence and Government is the Happiness of His Creatures.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?   Not quite sure that'd pass muster at Harper Collins these days.  "You know, Tom, we've been thinking about your title.  We need something that pops.  Our marketing guys have come up with this one, you'll love it, seriously, 'God is Cool: Seven Reasons He Wants You To be Happy.'  Oh, and that picture?  Do you have something better?"

The work itself is remarkably dense, a gleeful thicket of words piled one on top of the other.  We were wired differently in the 18th century.  With some adaptation, you can get into it.  As I've begun reading it, I can already feel how Bayes thought theologically.  Honestly?  I like the guy.

One of the questions he is clearly asking himself is data related.  Assuming we want to genuinely answer the question, what metrics would be reliable measures of Divine Benevolence?   Meaning, what would tell us that God is loving and good?

What's striking is the thing he immediately dismisses:  Material blessings.  As he reasons through it, he asks himself whether the giving of rewards is an inherent sign of goodness.

The answer: No.  No it isn't.

As Bayes sees it, rewards can be given by the manipulative to curry favor, or by a tyrant to cement their power.   They are not, in and of themselves, a reliable data point informing our assessment of another being's love or compassion.   So as he develops his argument for the probability that God is good, he rejects material blessings almost outright.

Fascinating.   Perhaps someone should tell Joel Osteen.