24. The Bayesian Belief: 2. The Divine Richard Price

Beginning in the 16th century and continuing for approximately 200 years, the Protestant reformation divided Western Europe.  Beyond its challenge to Catholic hegemony, the Protestant reformation attempted to redefine the path between man and God.  Protestantism emphasized that access to the divine could be achieved directly without need for an intermediary or, specifically, the papal hierarchy.  Scripture, and not church authority, provided the faithful a method of understanding their relationship with God.

[In my family, this division continued to reverberate until recently.  I recall asking my grandfather, Harry Donnelly, whether or not our family was related to the Black Donnellys, a notorious family that was murdered by a vigilante mob in Biddulph Township in Southwestern Ontario in the mid-1800s.  He replied with considerable anger that those Donnellys were Catholic and we were Protestants.  Two of my brothers are now Catholic by marriage and my grandfather is deceased.  For my family, at least, the division between Catholicism and Protestantism has ended.]

This devolution of authority from top to bottom, from a select few to the many, was at the heart of Protestantism.  In effect, under Protestant doctrine, all parishioners became members of the priesthood.

The emergence of Protestant belief allowed individuals to redefine their relationship with the divine.  However, in doing so, it also opened the door to other methods of understanding one’s place within the universe.  If no one perspective was supreme, then all hypotheses were imaginable.

The Age of Enlightenment coincided with religious reform and, under Enlightenment, reason and scientific enquiry were promoted and strictly faith-based arguments became open to challenge.  Unlike the contemporary separation between the secular and the divine, the line between science and religion was not complete in the 1700s.  For some, reason and religion seemed antithetical.  For others, science and its tools represented a potential device to uncover the divine.  That is:  if God is omniscient, omnipresent, and embedded in the fabric of nature, could not the presence of God be revealed through reason and careful observation?

Of these two alternatives, Richard Price preferred the latter.  And the form of probability, as demonstrated by Thomas Bayes, represented a possible mechanism from which the divine could be  revealed.  In his introduction to Bayes’ essay, Price makes this clear:

  • The purpose I mean is, to shew what reason we have for believing that there are in the constitution of things fixt laws according to which things happen, and that, therefore, the frame of the world must be the effect of the wisdom and power of an intelligent cause; and thus to confirm the argument taken from final causes for the existence of the Deity. It will be easy to see that the converse problem solved in this essay is more directly applicable to this purpose; for it shews us, with distinctness and precision, in every case of any particular order or recurrency of events, what reason there is to think that such recurrency or order is derived from stable causes or regulations innature, and not from any irregularities of chance.  (pp 373-374)

Price was arguing that within all animate things there exists a set of rules or laws that directs those things toward their eventual purpose or their reason for being.  This teleological notion that all things are created or directed for an ultimate purpose was (and still is) a common concept in theology, philosophy, and biology.  In Price’s time, the ultimate purpose of all things on earth was to serve man. Man’s purpose, in turn, was to serve God.  Price’s second point was that when things or events occur in a particular order they do so because of an underlying meaningful cause and not due to happenstance or chance.

Following his introduction, Price presents Bayes’ demonstration of inverse probability or Bayes’ method of estimating the probability of a future single event when we know nothing about that event beyond its frequency in the past.  Bayes demonstrates this using a ball and table metaphor.  Price concludes the paper with an appendix containing a number of demonstrations of Bayes’ method.

[Not to worry, I will eventually provide Bayes’ method in painful detail in a later post.  But before I can go there, I must go elsewhere first.]

I challenge you to read Bayes’ and Price’s paper and to try and see the connection between Bayes’ method and evidence for the presence of the divine.  That connection seems subtle, if not oblique.  That puzzles me.  In comparison to Bayes’ notations, Price’s introduction and appendix are a relative joy to read.  Price’s appendix would also be the most natural place for Price to further expand upon his argument of fixed laws framed by the wisdom and power of an intelligent cause.  Price does provide a series of examples of Bayes’ method.  However, exactly how those examples are connected to Price’s argument for intelligent design is unclear.  It is, as if, this link should be obvious to the reader and Price does not wish to be belabor the point.  And perhaps it was apparent to Price’s audience in 1763 in a way that is less clear to a modern audience whose perception has been occluded by 250 years of time.

In order to make sense of the theological underpinnings of Bayes’ and Price’s essay, some have suggested that Price, in particular, was building an argument against his contemporary, David Hume.

And that will be the topic of my next post.

Bayes Price Hume Circle