Monday, October 27, 2003

By Joe Blundo

Illustration: Photo

* Stephen D. Unwin will read and sign copies of The Probability of God at 2 p.m. Nov. 23 in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers at Lennox Town Center.
In the category of subjects that perplex me, math comes just below God.

So when I opened a book that attempts to prove God's existence using math, I wasn't hopeful.

But a miracle occurred: I understood a lot of it. And the parts I didn't quite grasp had enough humor to keep me happy despite my confusion.

Yes, the book has humor, a trait that math sorely needs. God, I'm sure, already has a sense of humor, having put up with people for so long.

The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth (Crown Forum, $22.95) was written by Stephen D. Unwin, an Upper Arlington risk-management consultant. He advises corporations on the risks associated with operating nuclear power plants and other scary-sounding enterprises.

''I learned how to state the risk of a major accident in numerical terms -- that is, in terms of probability,'' he writes. ''So as you can imagine, it's a small step for me to embark on a calculation of the probability that God exists.''

Small step, indeed. Unwin peppers the book with such wry understatement.

Unwin, 47, was born in England, obtained a doctorate in physics and immigrated to the United States in 1984. He was a churchgoing youth who hasn't lost the habit: He is a member of First Community Church in Marble Cliff.

The idea for the book sprang from his interest in a branch of probability theory that provides a mathematical framework for assessing uncertain situations. It's a handy tool for risk managers. But applying it to God?

''It is a bit audacious,'' Unwin conceded in an interview.

After working out his God math, he began writing a book about it. He sent a few chapters to Crown Forum, a division of publishing giant Random House. The publisher quickly accepted; what God thinks remains to be seen.

I don't want to give away the results of Unwin's mathematical exertions, except to say that they yield a satisfyingly precise result that takes into account reason, faith and doubt.

Then he cheekily concludes: ''So let's agree that we've sorted this whole thing out.''

For those who want to try it at home, the book ends with instructions for building a spreadsheet upon which readers can calculate their own probabilities of God.

It sounds crazy, yet Unwin, for all his wit, isn't just fooling around. He uses his math exercise as an excuse to examine the big issues, such as the nature of goodness, why evil exists and the healthy aspects of doubt.

''Even though it's a trivial little formula,'' he said, ''I felt I was getting some insight out of it.''

Me, too. I especially liked the way he mixed humor and scientific rigor to assail positions of the tiresome absolutists, both fundamentalist and atheistic, who make most of the noise on the subject of God.

''I think people from those two ends of the spectrum deserve each other,'' Unwin said.

In the end, with a typical flourish, he declares readers ''mathematical theologists'' capable of feats of which Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas could only dream.

''Please proceed responsibly,'' he advises.


Joe Blundo is a Dispatch columnist.

Stephen D. Unwin, author of The Probability of God

All content herein is 2003 The Columbus Dispatch. Republished with kind permission.