Sunday, January 24, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section three

Did the Universe Self-Create? (Chapter Four, section three)

I took a look at the rest of the section headings, and it looks like Chapter Four, the “Scientific Evidence for God,” is going to be based entirely around Intelligent Design and disproving evolution. Oh well.

While I’ll go through each of his arguments, I’d like to note that it’s mostly irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists and whether or not He created the universe. Firstly, as I keep saying, disproving evolution just means evolution is not the correct explanation for biodiversity. It doesn’t mean that God did it. Secondly, he seems to be making all the classic creationist mistakes, including conflating the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and evolution. Whether or not evolution is correct has nothing to do with how the universe came into being or how life originated. Finally, this is all pretty much irrelevant because of the inherent problems with the Argument from Design that I discussed earlier.

The author begins by describing a number of complex animal abilities, such as time-sense and the ability to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field as a guide. He then says that it is statistically improbable that these happened through “chance mutation and natural selection.” He even cites the, “Tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a 747” analogy.

From regarding the tornado analogy:

1) This claim is irrelevant to the theory of evolution itself, since evolution does not occur via assembly from individual parts, but rather via selective gradual modifications to existing structures. Order can and does result from such evolutionary processes.
2) Hoyle applied his analogy to abiogenesis, where it is more applicable. However, the general principle behind it is wrong. Order arises spontaneously from disorder all the time. The tornado itself is an example of order arising spontaneously. Something as complicated as people would not arise spontaneously from raw chemicals, but there is no reason to believe that something as simple as a self-replicating molecule could not form thus. From there, evolution can produce more and more complexity.

In citing statistical imporobability the author here is displaying a lack of understanding of how probability works. To use the standard analogy, any given hand in a game of cards is statistically very improbable. Yet each player does in fact get a group of cards. The reason this works is because while a player is unlikely to get any specific set of cards, they must get some set of cards. Similarly, the extremely unlikely probability that our specific form of life would form is not really relevant. What is relevant is the likelihood of any self-replicating form arising. That our form of life happened to be the lucky one is no more to the point than that I happened to get a pair of fours, a seven, and two jacks in a hand of poker is relevant to the probability that I would get some combination of five cards.

Further, the unlikelihood of a particular event happening is irrelevant once it actually happens. It is extremely unlikely that any particular person will win a Powerball lottery, yet to claim that the winner actually didn’t win by chance and must have been selected deliberately is silly. So even if the formation of self-replicating forms is vanishingly unlikely, we must accept that they formed. To say that the unlikelihood of their formation is proof that they formed due to the intent of a Creator is as silly as maintaining that the lottery winner must have been deliberately selected. As long as something is possible, it can happen, no matter how unlikely it is.

But we don’t even need to resort to pointing out that a one-in-a-ridiculously-high-number chance is still a chance. The staggering improbability of life occurring spontaneously holds only if we assume consecutive trials. The author quotes a claim that the chance of a bacterium evolving is 1 in 10^39,950. Leaving aside for the moment that we are really discussing the likelihood of a simple self-replicating form, not a more complex bacterium, we are not talking about 10^39,950 trials one after another. We are talking about many (trillions?) of simultaneous trials here on Earth. If we include the rest of the universe with all of the stars and planets, we can run through 10^39,950 trials pretty quickly. If you’re a one-in-a-million kind of person, there are six thousand other people just like you. When the number of trials is in multiples of the probability coefficient, the formation of a self-replicating form isn’t just not unlikely, it’s nearly inevitable.

Lastly, the author seems to be confusing the probability of complex abilities evolving slowly through tiny incremental changes driven by natural selection with the probability of those complex abilities arising spontaneously fully-formed. That everything should line up perfectly by chance to give animals these complex abilities is staggeringly unlikely. The probability of a single small change is much higher, and combined with a high number of simultaneous trials (every birth is a trial) and the (non-random) pressures of natural selection to filter for useful changes the emergence of complex abilities becomes much more likely.

The author goes on to cite the opinions two chemists. The first is quoted as saying, “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms could have been generated by accident is zero!” That may well be true, but evolutionary biologists do not claim that “organic structures” and “harmonized reactions” were “generated by accident.” At best, abiogenesis could be characterized as an “accident,” but that is merely the formation of a self-replicator, which would have very simple with few structures or precisely tuned functions. It is through the process of evolution by natural selection, a non-random process akin to careful breeding, that the complexity arose.

The second chemist, Charles-Eugene Guye, is claimed to have proven “through probability calculus that the formation of even one molecule of living matter by mere chance is as good as impossible.” This is more to the point, as it addresses the simple forms that would have arisen through abiogenesis. Yet the phrasing is strange. “Molecules” are not living matter. Complex modern life is made of molecules that are not themselves alive. (Exactly what is and isn’t alive is an interesting question. Are our cells alive? The mitochondria in our cells? Are individual proteins alive? The atoms which form the proteins?) What the author probably meant are organic molecules.

A quick Google search turned up the following from Wikiquotes:

…which claims that the odds are 1 in 10^243 against "two thousand atoms" (the size of one particular protein molecule) ending up in precisely that particular order "by accident." Where did Jelenik get that figure? From Pierre Lecompte du Nouy... who in turn got it from Charles-Eugene Guye, a physicist who died in 1942. Guye had merely calculated the odds of these atoms lining up by accident if "a volume" of atoms the size of the Earth were "shaken at the speed of light." In other words, ignoring all the laws of chemistry, which create preferences for the formation and behavior of molecules, and ignoring that there are millions if not billions of different possible proteins--and of course the result has no bearing on the origin of life, which may have begun from an even simpler protein. This calculation is thus useless for all these reasons, …and is hugely outdated (it was calculated before 1942, even before the discovery of DNA), and thus fails to account for over half a century of scientific progress.

So we see that Charles-Eugene Guye’s calculation is not valid and therefore irrelevant. Quoting these two chemists is yet another appeal to authority. We are to accept these chemists’ conclusions because they are scientists. Yet at the same time we are expected to ignore the opinions of all the scientists the author did not see fit to quote. Are we to believe that all of these other scientists, presumably as competent as the author’s examples, did not know of these men’s work? And that the author, himself not a scientist, is privy to conclusive proofs of which the experts are unaware? We are left with two equally unlikely possibilities. Either all of the scientists who believe evolution to be accurate and that abiogensis occurred are indeed ignorant of these decades-old conclusive “proofs” and would immediatly change their position if only the mathematical proofs were brought to their attention; or that those scientists who hold evolution to be the truth are deliberately ignoring these proofs and are deceiving themselves and others in a massive conspiracy. (Amazingly, I think the author leans towards the latter. We’ll see a little later when I get up to his discussion of why scientists “believe in” evolution.)

The author now discuses the Miller-Urey experiment which showed that organic compounds will spontaneously arise out of a “primordial soup” containing water and other elements necessary for life when electricity is applied to the mixture. This and subsequent experiments have shown that abiogenesis is a plausible explanation for the origin of life. The author calls this a “…“proof” of the theory of evolution.” Of course, the experiment was about abiogenesis, not evolution, and it and similar experiments, while they don’t tell us how life actually arose on Earth, are certainly valid as proof-of-concept. The author puts the word “proof” in quotes, implying that it is in fact no such thing, yet doesn’t bother to explain why the experiment was invalid.

Instead, he makes the strange statement that, “More than fifty years since the original experiment… scientists have still not been able to create the basic elements – such as carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen – that went into making the experiment work.” What does the creation of elements have to do with how life arose? The creation of elements in stars though fusion is a well-understood process. I don’t know if anyone has managed to create elements in a lab, but even if it’s never been done, so what? We know how the elements necessary for life formed. Whether or not humans have managed to recreate the process is irrelevant.

The author now quotes yet another chemist, Harold Urey, (of the Miller-Urey experiment) as saying that the more scientists learn of the origins of life, the more impossible it is for them to accept it as the result of “accidental evolution”, yet they cling to evolution as “an article of faith.” The origin of the quote is the Christian Science Monitor (January 4, 1962).

TalkOrigins has this quote in their quote-mining section and provides the relevant context:

Here is the relevant text:

"Dr. Harold C. Urey, Nobel Prize-holding chemist of the University of California at La Jolla, explained the modern outlook on this question by noting that "all of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel that it is too complex to have evolved anywhere.

"And yet, he added, "We all believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great it is hard for us to imagine that it did."

"Pressed to explain what he meant by having "faith" in an event for which he had no substantial evidence, Dr. Urey said his faith was not in the event itself so much as in the physical laws and reasoning that pointed to its likelihood. He would abandon his faith if it ever proved to be misplaced. But that is a prospect he said he considered to be very unlikely."

I bet you are just dying to know what the question referred to in the first sentence is, aren't you? The preceding section was on panspermia vs abiogenesis:

"This theory had been proposed before scientists knew how readily the organic materials of life can be synthesized from inorganic matter under the conditions thought to have prevailed in the early days of the earth. Today, Dr. Sagan said, it is far easier to believe that organisms arose spontaneously on the earth than to try to account for them in any other way."

This is a misquote, pure and simple. With the reporting style used, you can't string together the items in the quote marks and assume he said those things in order.

Dr. Urey’s remarks were taken out of context (and I suspect that the version quoted in the book (which is slightly different from that cited on TalkOrigins) is a tweaked version of the misquote, as this version explicitly mentions evolution and more strongly implies that evolution is a dogma). He was not talking about evolution, but about abiogenesis, and he was not talking about faith in a religious sense but of a conviction that the scientific method is the best way to discover the way the world functions.

Further, even if it were true that evolution is a religious belief, accepted on “faith,” that would only serve to put it on an equal footing with other religious beliefs accepted on faith. If the argument is that evolution is an invalid claim BECUASE it's a religious belief, the implication is that all religious beliefs are inherently invalid, an argument that is antithetical to the book's thesis.

I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that he lifted the quote from a Creationist source without bothering to check its veracity. This would merely make him unreliable. To assume that he actually did the research and used the quote anyway would imply that he’s dishonest.


  1. Hi!

    I read your blog-post, and there is nothing in your arguments that I disagree with.

    I am really impressed and commend the efforts you must have taken to cross-check with original sources. Also, I commend the simple clarity with which you have brought forth the flaws in the quoted author's arguments.

    The only reason I am commenting is I felt after reading your post that the effort you have put in, and the quality of its outcome ought to be acknowledged. :)

    Take care.

  2. Thanks!

    It's less effort than you would think, though. All of this stuff is online, and when it comes to checking the sources, Google is your freind.

  3. And I'm not sure if you remain updated with new comments on your older posts. Letting you know because I have put my comments on a few old posts of yours.

    I felt the effort was involved in trying to make out the original context of the scientists' quotations.


  4. I have not read the book that you are discussing, but your account of it confirms my suspicion that the people who do the most to discredit religious claims are not those who argue against them but those who argue for them. Their consistent reliance on fallacious arguments and bogus "facts" does more than any atheistic polemic to make it difficult to believe that their claims have any merit.

  5. The argument can certainly be made that those who simply accept religious claims on faith are more honest (though non-rational) than those that attempt to twist reality to fit their religion.

    It occurs to me that I neglected to point out that even if it were true that evolution is a religious beleif, that would only serve to put it on an equal footing with other relgions. If the argument is that evolution is an invalid claim BECUASE it's a relgious beleif, the implication is that all religous beleifs are inherently invalid, an argument that is antithetical to the book's thesis.

    I'll probably add this to the next section's critique.

  6. Great post, G3.

    I'm glad somebody is reading these kinds of books critically. I don't have the patience to read this apologetics stuff any more.

    I like your Powerball argument. Its accurate yet populist-- anybody can understand it, as easily as understanding the "watchmaker analogy".
    (Although I know many very rational people who would argue that it was from God if they won the lottery...)

  7. > Although I know many very rational people who would argue that it was from God if they won the lottery...)

    Very true, but in this case that would be begging the question: Winning is very unlikely, so it must be God Who arranged it. And how do we know that God is behind improbable events? Becuase we see that improbable events are always arranged...