God & The Value of Information

If asked whether God exists, many people will say that they do not know because there is not enough information. Give me more evidence and perhaps I will believe. One way to deal with this situation is to borrow an approach that is used in medical decision-making, known as Value of Information analysis.

Imagine you are the doctor looking after Mary, a 72-year-old lady with a cough. Her symptoms and your findings on clinical examination suggest a lung infection and the appearances on her chest x-ray support this diagnosis. But things are not entirely certain and other causes are still possible. Is there enough evidence to commit to treatment with antibiotics or should you do more tests to confirm lung infection? Doctors need to make decisions like this every day, but their choices are not based on a whim. They are made scientifically using a method known as evidence-based medicine. Much of my work as a clinical academic has involved discovering new ways to support these kinds of medical decisions. I have also found that the same principles can support faith.

By way of example, let us use Value of Information analysis to decide whether we should arrange more tests for Mary or commit to treatment based on current evidence. As we shall see, this situation is comparable to deciding whether to ask for more evidence of God’s existence or commit to God based on currently available arguments. If we had perfect information, we could give Mary antibiotics if she had a lung infection but not do so if there was no infection. In medicine, such an ideal situation happens rarely if ever. Nevertheless, we can estimate a theoretical value for having perfect information by looking at the difference between a decision made with perfect information and the best decision we can make based on currently available evidence. In Mary’s case, because antibiotics are so effective, it would be reasonable to prescribe this treatment based only on her symptoms, clinical findings, and chest x-ray. Notice that if Mary does have a lung infection, we would have made the right decision whether we had perfect information or not.

On the other hand, having perfect information would enable us to avoid giving antibiotics if Mary turns out to have something other than a lung infection. But is it worth doing extra tests to avoid unnecessary antibiotics? Probably not given the costs and additional radiation required to obtain the additional evidence. But notice that the value of perfect information is determined by what might happen if there were no infection.

The Value of Information for God’s Existence

Now let us apply the same approach to the question of God’s existence. If we decide to believe in God based on less-than-perfect evidence, we might gain the considerable benefits of correct belief, but then again, we could end up believing in God unnecessarily. On the other hand, with perfect information, we would know to believe in God if he does exist and to withhold belief if he does not exist. Because the benefits of correct belief are large, the value of perfect information for God’s existence is determined by what would happen if God does not exist. This is directly analogous to Mary’s situation where the value of perfect information is determined by what would happen if there were no infection. Perfect information would only have value if correct unbelief were more favourable than believing in God even if he does not exist. If it were the other way around, then then the expected value of perfected information will be zero or less. And if perfect information has no value, then any additional evidence for God would also be worthless.

Belief in God has inspired many things that have enriched civilisation, including works of art and music. The concept of universal human rights has its origins in Christianity. Even modern science emerged in a Christian context and many of its basic assumptions have their origins in Christian thinking. Benefits to the lives of individuals committed to God can be seen to follow from participation in public worship and other practices that aim to facilitate interactions with the reality of God. Regular attendance at public expressions of worship is associated with fewer physical and mental health problems, and a longer life span, not only in comparison to people who are socially isolated but also relative to those who are supported by secular social networks. Contemplative practices, such as focused prayer and meditation, reduce stress which, if chronic, increases susceptibility to a wide range of illnesses. An attitude of mind inspired by religious faith can also activate health-enhancing mind–body interactions.

But what about negative aspects of religious belief? Undoubtably, religion is vulnerable to being hijacked by people with violent intentions, but established scientific criteria fail to demonstrate that religious faith causes violence. Furthermore, belief in God does not in itself give license to others to hold unsubstantiated beliefs that may be harmful. Although religion can be associated with intolerance, particularly when approached as a means to an end or as a set of unquestionable beliefs that are handed down from above, belief in God does not have to be followed in those ways. This effect is not found when faith is seen as a quest for knowledge.

It is common for sceptics to base their unbelief on a lack of proof for God’s existence. When asking for more evidence, some may even think that they are being scientific. But how often do they use decision science to determine the value of the information they are asking for? If they did so, they would find that there are good reasons to think that even perfect information for God’s existence would be of no value. Therefore, before asking for more evidence of God’s existence, there is an onus on sceptics to demonstrate that correct unbelief is better than believing God even if he doesn’t exist, something they might find difficult or impossible.

About the author:
Ken Miles is a Clinical Academic and author of “From Billiard Balls to Bishops: A scientist’s introduction to Christian worship”. His website can be accessed here.