Friday, September 23, 2005


Hrun has this post today about academics versus real estate agents.

I am distraught that I came from the same place the blog he linked to is published. But in the comments section I found something that is commonly put forward by faith based types as "proof" of God, or some kind of intervention in the world and I can no longer let it go without comment:

PZ and his accomplices are quibbling about details in order to obscure the
larger picture. The spontaneous and random generation of life from non-life has been shown to so mathematically improbable as to be effectively impossible. They
either know that and won't accept it, or don't know it and aren't as informed as
they think they are.
Improbably is not the same as impossible. Lots of things are highly improbable. But the great thing about improbability is that there is still 1 chance. If the odds are 1/1,000,000 or 1/1,000,000^4 there is still a one in there. And over time, given enough chances that one will eventually happen.

here's a simple example. You go to McDonalds and run into your best friend from Highschool. "Jimmy! What are the odds?" Well actually they are pretty good. How many people go to McDonalds each day? I don't know, but every one of those people is a chance for someone to run into someone they know. Eventually it is going to happen. And if you go to McDonalds enough times, eventually it is going to happen to you.

The classic probability example is rolling a die and seeing what you get. Well every millisecond of every single day the universe is rolling dice, things are exploding, people are moving stars are imploding babies are born, people die, people who should die don't so on and so forth. With enough rolls of the dice you run into your buddy from McDondalds, or someone's untreatable cancer goes into remission, or my mom survives a horrible car accident and then a major stroke. These things could be small miracles, or maybe you just finally rolled a seven on the billion sided die.

The first time my stats prof made this point in class my whole being rebelled against it. How could it be that randomness can account for so much that goes on in life? It goes against the grain, and human nature to think this. But the more I thought about it from a scientific perspective, what is more probable? An all powerful all knowing god, or randomness?

Think whatever you want, but quit waving improbability around like it is proof of something, all that proves is that you don't understand what you're talking about.


Kav said...

This has always bugged me and it is actually quite hard to explain (at least it has been for me). What it comes down to is that yes the chance of life starting is miniscule, but we happen to live in that universe where it happened. if we didn't then we wouldn't be musing about it now would we?

Shinobi said...

It is a difficult concept to explain. Which is probably why so many people don't understand it.

Funnily enough this weekend I ran into a girl I'd met breifly on my Cruise to Alaska. We both went to the same movie theater, and were in the same elevator in the parking garage. It was very odd. and for a moment I was thinking... maybe I'm wrong about the whole probability thing, this is freaking weird. But when I thought about it of all the people I've met on cruises I've only ever bumped into one of them.

Averroes said...

For a fun and intelligent look at this sort of argument, check out Teilhard de Chardin. really.

He was, of course, the jesuit paleontologist and theologan who sought an amalgam of faith and science because he thought each without the other inadequate.

I mention him because he did make this one puzzling statement [I paraphrase]: "While life arising from inbanimate matter is mathematically possible, it is philosophically impossible." I have never had any idea what that could mean. But it has stuck with me like an irritating oyster stone.

For a pretty good discussion of his ideas, one that should seem refresshing if you have been participating at the level of the present pohoney Intelligent Design debates, (remembering that de Chardin is certainly an evolutionist, one migh5 say, more so thatn the average scientist today), try this:

It's not so much that i agree with de Chardin, but that i enjoy thoughts pout of their time and, as nietzsche would say, in the cold, rare air of the mountains.

the current quasi-debate takes place in a stinking swamp.