Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Think about it" Thursday: Life, the Universe, and Chance

Linnea asks:

I've been reading older posts, and am just itching to discuss the probability issues that came up in the comments under Oct. 31's "Why Would He Make That Up?!" Specifically, the idea that Life, the Universe, and Everything are so highly improbable that they couldn't have happened by "chance", and therefore must have been created deliberately.

Would you consider a new thread to discuss this topic specifically?

And my answer is yes, yes I would.  :-)  Have fun!



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10 comments:

  1. Well if you're talking about the fact that the physical constants are just too "perfect" to warrant them being done by chance, I'd refer you to the Anthropic Principle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/anthropic_prinicple

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm not sure I understand the argument. What, exactly, is supposed to be improbable?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I had a lengthy discussion on this with my brother a while back.

    It boils down to the fact that improbability does not imply impossibility.

    If we look at the odds that an event will occur, say winning the lottery, it looks almost impossible. However, people win the lottery all the time.

    There are a couple of concepts involved when people claim that probability works against the universe and life being the result of natural processes.

    They are anterior and posterior probability. In the example of the lottery, let's take the PowerBall. The odds of winning the big prize are 1 in 195,249,054.

    Does this mean that all 195,249,054 numbers have to be chosen by the participants each time? No, that would only assure a 100% chance that someone would win.

    However, only a very small subset of the numbers are chosen by the players each time the PowerBall is played. But, in that subset, the numbers can and often are chosen and someone or several people at times win.

    The anterior probability says that every set of numbers is likely possible to win. Only once the numbers are drawn can we then use posterior probability to say how likely a certain set of numbers was.

    It's fallacious to use posterior probability because the event has to take place first before it can be used.

    In the case of the universe and life, only anterior probability is applicable. Since we don't know what conditional events occurred before the big bang, then we can't calculate the anterior probability. We can only say that the event happened and the processes it set in place led to the universe and the life in it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The first thing that struck me was Andrea's statement, in the comments to the Oct. 31 thread:

    I think it interesting to do some research into the mathematical probability of the big bang and evolution. It's interesting. The more science discovers, the more it's "proving" that this all isn't just happen chance.

    I happen to disagree with this. As Steve said above, improbability doesn't imply impossibility.

    Later on in the old thread, Patrik said:
    Let me give you a real scientific explanation on how life got started: with a stroke of luck. In fact, so much luck that the probability of it happening is so extremely improbable many orders of magnitude more than most people realize! That courtesy of Richard Dawkins. So often religious people are looked down on because they have faith, which is belief that is not based on proof. And yet science has no problem explaining away immensely improbable events with terms such as “luck”. In my opinion, the “scientific” term for faith is luck.


    I haven't read Dawkins, but I think perhaps "luck" was an unfortunate word to use. "Chance" is more like it. Out of all the many many stars and planets in the universe, it happened by chance that at least one of them had the conditions necessary for life to come about. Many different things could have happened; this is the one that did. I see no need for faith to be involved, and certainly no need to postulate a divine creator simply because something improbable happened.

    Also Patrik: In another book an astrophysicist named Hugh Ross suggests that the probability of the anthropic principles all aligning just so for life to be possible on earth at 1 in 10138. (Not sure if I made the superscript thing work, but that's a 1 followed by 138 zeroes.)

    Patrik, I think (correct me if I'm wrong) that you're implying that an event with such a vanishingly small probability couldn't just happen on it's own, therefore there had to be supernatural help. But try this thought experiment: you have a set of dice with 10138 sides. You roll one of these dice. Obviously you have no hope of predicting which side it will land on, but it *will* land on one of its sides. So it's really no surprise when one out of all those highly unlikely possibilities happens.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Okay, superscript fail. For "10138", read "10-to-the-138th-power", in both places.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I heard a Point of Inquiry interview with John Allen Paulos on this book, http://www.amazon.com/Irreligion-Mathematician-Explains-Arguments-Just/dp/0809059185/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1262929927&sr=8-1, which covers this topic. The interview was great and I've been meaning to reading the book but haven't yet. My impression is that it covers this topic nicely.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Just want to add something to Linnea's line of thought:

    Not only do "you" have a set of those dice with 10-to-the-138th-power number of sides, but every molecule made up of more than say a couple of carbon and oxygen atoms has a set of those dice. And, they have been rolling the dice for 2.7 billion years here on earth, or maybe 5 billion years or so since the formation of this particular planet, not to mention the possibly 7-10 billion more years before that. Not just once-a-day or anything, but in every moment of existence there have been a number of those dice rolling along.

    A famous Einstein quote comes to mind: "I, at any rate, am convinced that HE does not throw dice." (This was in response to something that Einstein wasn't willing to accept because it didn't give him the answers he wanted...)

    We have to see the possibility of chance for what it is - a working explanation that can be further understood. If someone is stuck on G-D, then that someone may very well have to entertain the ideas that either G-D is an unintelligent/unconscious designer, G-D isn't watching as closely as you might wish, or G-D really likes a wild gamble...

    ReplyDelete
  8. Just want to add something to Linnea's line of thought:

    Not only do "you" have a set of those dice with 10-to-the-138th-power number of sides, but every molecule made up of more than say a couple of carbon and oxygen atoms has a set of those dice. And, they have been rolling the dice for 2.7 billion years here on earth, or maybe 5 billion years or so since the formation of this particular planet, not to mention the possibly 7-10 billion more years before that. Not just once-a-day or anything, but in every moment of existence there have been a number of those dice rolling along.

    A famous Einstein quote comes to mind: "I, at any rate, am convinced that HE does not throw dice." (This was in response to something that Einstein wasn't willing to accept because it didn't give him the answers he wanted...)

    We have to see the possibility of chance for what it is - a working explanation that can be further understood. If someone is stuck on G-D, then that someone may very well have to entertain the ideas that either G-D is an unintelligent/unconscious designer, G-D isn't watching as closely as you might wish, or G-D really likes a wild gamble...

    ReplyDelete
  9. I heard a Point of Inquiry interview with John Allen Paulos on this book, http://www.amazon.com/Irreligion-Mathematician-Explains-Arguments-Just/dp/0809059185/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1262929927&sr=8-1, which covers this topic. The interview was great and I've been meaning to reading the book but haven't yet. My impression is that it covers this topic nicely.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The first thing that struck me was Andrea's statement, in the comments to the Oct. 31 thread:

    I think it interesting to do some research into the mathematical probability of the big bang and evolution. It's interesting. The more science discovers, the more it's "proving" that this all isn't just happen chance.

    I happen to disagree with this. As Steve said above, improbability doesn't imply impossibility.

    Later on in the old thread, Patrik said:
    Let me give you a real scientific explanation on how life got started: with a stroke of luck. In fact, so much luck that the probability of it happening is so extremely improbable many orders of magnitude more than most people realize! That courtesy of Richard Dawkins. So often religious people are looked down on because they have faith, which is belief that is not based on proof. And yet science has no problem explaining away immensely improbable events with terms such as “luck”. In my opinion, the “scientific” term for faith is luck.


    I haven't read Dawkins, but I think perhaps "luck" was an unfortunate word to use. "Chance" is more like it. Out of all the many many stars and planets in the universe, it happened by chance that at least one of them had the conditions necessary for life to come about. Many different things could have happened; this is the one that did. I see no need for faith to be involved, and certainly no need to postulate a divine creator simply because something improbable happened.

    Also Patrik: In another book an astrophysicist named Hugh Ross suggests that the probability of the anthropic principles all aligning just so for life to be possible on earth at 1 in 10138. (Not sure if I made the superscript thing work, but that's a 1 followed by 138 zeroes.)

    Patrik, I think (correct me if I'm wrong) that you're implying that an event with such a vanishingly small probability couldn't just happen on it's own, therefore there had to be supernatural help. But try this thought experiment: you have a set of dice with 10138 sides. You roll one of these dice. Obviously you have no hope of predicting which side it will land on, but it *will* land on one of its sides. So it's really no surprise when one out of all those highly unlikely possibilities happens.

    ReplyDelete

Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism