Columbus author takes a scientific approach to faith

BYLINE:    Khalid Moss
DATE: December 13, 2003
PUBLICATION: Dayton Daily News (OH)


The principles of probability are of extreme importance in the fields of engineering, science and mathematics. However, not many scholars have tried to apply theories of probability to matters of spirituality and faith.

Columbus-based author Stephen Unwin has boldly gone where no theoretical physicist has gone before with his dense but witty book, The Probability Of God (Crown Forum New York, $22.95). Unwin, who appeared at Books & Co. in Kettering last week, argues that God does exist - and claims to have the mathematical formula to prove it. Theology and faith don't fit comfortably into the rigid paradigms required by scientific analysis. But Unwin, a Brit with a doctorate in physics from Manchester University, has formulated a set of equations that will have both believers and non-believers scratching their heads.

Unwin said his early religious experiences and scientific training shaped his convictions and planted the seeds for his ambitious project.

`I had a relatively religious upbringing,' Unwin said. `At the same time, I had an education in the sciences. But it never occurred to me that there was any conflict between the two. And yet, when I came to America with my job many years ago, I became aware of a debate that put science and religion in sharp conflict.'

The problem, as Unwin saw it, was the dogmatic positions taken by the two sides and their absolute certainty about their perspectives. Instead of trying to `eliminate uncertainty about the existence of God,' Unwin decided to `embrace the uncertainty' and see what the implication might be for people of faith.

`My technical background was in the use of mathematics,' he said. `I was versed in the math of probabilities, so I said maybe they can be applied here to see what the uncertainties are regarding God's existence. That's the way the project got started.'

Unwin's equations are based on a mathematical principle called `Bayes' theorem.' A theorem is a rule that tells you how a certain type of number behaves. Bayes' theorem is one of the basic rules of probability.

`The beauty of Bayes' theorem is that it allows you to look at evidence about some uncertain proposition and see how that evidence affects the probability that the proposition is true,' he said. `The proposition I was looking at was the probability that God exists. What I did was line up all the evidence either in favor of God's existence or against God's existence and use this probability type of thinking to see what the implications are for the overall probability of God.

`The number I came up with is that there is a 67 percent, or more than two-thirds, probability that God exists.'

But mathematically challenged readers shouldn't feel intimidated, he said.

`I tried to make the math at a very rudimentary level,' he said. `I like to tell folks that if they can balance a checkbook, they can cope with the arithmetic components of the book. I try to take the reader very slowly through what the symbols mean and how they relate to one another.'

However, at book signings around the country, Unwin has been confronted by religious folk who don't see eye to eye with his Xs and Os.

`They don't agree with me on the idea of uncertainty, because they feel absolutely certain that God exists,' he said. `I try to express my position that the certainty comes not completely from rational analysis but from the faith factor. There is something in the book for everyone to agree or disagree with.'

Contact Khalid Moss at 225-2167.

Illustration: PHOTO: Stephen Unwin