Sunday, September 28, 2008

Putting Down "But It's Soooo Improbable" Arguments

One of the favourite - and utterly brain dead - criticisms of evolution that is often raised is the "sheer improbability" of the world - and the universe we live in - having "simply occurred" as a result of highly unlikely events coinciding.

Fundamentally, this is an emotional reaction - one firmly rooted in the same insecurity that gives religion its foothold in our world in the first place. There's something very unsettling to humans about the notion that we are in many ways simply a part of nature, and not divinely privileged in any respect.

However, one has only to look as far as the complex computer systems that we have today to get some idea of how these seemingly infinitely small probabilities line up.

A number of years ago, I was tasked with finding a bug in a piece of software I was responsible for at work. Every so often a handful of projects would pop up with exactly the same fault occurring, but we could never reproduce it in our test lab.

Eventually, we did track the fault down to a single line of code that had a small, but significant coding error. However, the coding error was not likely to cause a serious problem unless the following combination of failures happened to coincide:

1. The faulty line of code executed and produced a fail condition.
2. The program received a 'page' of memory that just happened to have a meaningful value in the correct location from the last execution of the loop
3. The correct sequence of related programs executed, and left the system in a state where 1 and 2 could in fact occur and coincide.

When we found the error, one of the team spent a few hours working out what the likely combination of events was that was necessary to coincide for this result to occur - and the number was surprisingly close to 1 in a million - quite literally. When we sat down and ran the numbers, the average time between errors happened to be awfully close to when the millionth execution of that could would likely have taken place on that system.

With the exception of the code error, the rest of the events that had to coincide were quite beyond our control - effectively random for all intents and purposes. While one might argue that the computer system itself was the result of intelligent design, that misses the point. The systems in question were never designed to produce the result that was observed. The second point is that the various aspects of the computer environment were acting as independent, but interacting, systems - not unlike those we see in the world around us (admittedly the computer software involved exists on a far smaller scale than the world we live in).

So, if one were to draw out the analogy a bit further - especially when considering the fundamental concept of evolution - we find ourselves examining the probability that random biological events would be occurring, some more successful than others at propogating themselves. So, let's consider that any particular biological event (e.g. DNA mutation) has a probability of 1 / 1 x 10^7 of occurring (my estimate of the probability here is arbitrary). Now consider how many biological events occur in the world every second of every day. Cells split and reproduce all the time - think about the number of cells in our world - even in one body - the numbers are unimaginably huge, far more than 1 x 10^7 - which means that the odds are that somewhere, any one arbitrary event has occurred.

Now, thinking beyond that, then the question is whether that event occurs in a context which makes it significant? Well, if the event itself can occur, and has a pretty reasonable chance of occurring, then it is hardly an unreasonable assertion that the events could occur in the correct context to become significant.

Is this guaranteed? No. Is it impossible? No - which is by far the more significant point.

Does this preclude the existence of some metaphysical being and their involvement in our universe? No - of course not. By definition the metaphysical being is unprovable until we ourselves become peers to that being somehow.

However, it does provide us with a knowable explanation that does not require the intervention of an unknown and unprovable entity. This produces a logically consistent explanation - one which stands to scrutiny.

For some, what I postulate here is going to be emotionally unsatisfying - but that's not surprising - statistics and the mathematics of probabilities are seldom emotionally satisfying. Science in general isn't about sating someone's emotional needs.

24 comments:

evilscientist said...

I usually counter argue that it only has to happen once....

That and 1 in a million arguments tend to get shot down when you realize wining lotto 6/49 is a 1 in 14 million shot, and people win that all the time....

Woodwose said...

The video at this location does a lot to explain natural causes and remove the need for invisible friends to get the ball rolling towards life.

Presenting Abiogenesis:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6QYDdgP9eg&eurl=http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/

Cardinal Pole said...

Problems with your argument:

"Fundamentally, this is an emotional reaction - one firmly rooted in the same insecurity that gives religion its foothold in our world in the first place."

Right, so the Apostles invented a legend in order to satisfy their 'insecurity', but then gave up this new-found security and comfort in order to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth? Knowing that they would face persecution from the Jews, persecution from the pagans and ridicule from unbelievers? Knowing that they would make countless enemies, but then have to love and forgive those enemies?

"There's something very unsettling to humans about the notion that we are in many ways simply a part of nature, and not divinely privileged in any respect."

I suspect that you do not know the difference between man's original state and man's natural state. Unregenerate man is a part of nature. It is only by Baptism that he is elevated to the supernatural order.

"While one might argue that the computer system itself was the result of intelligent design, that misses the point."

No, that is the point. Humans find it very difficult to make computer programmes that generate truly random numbers. And probably more importantly, the problem of 'who programmed the programmer' is no reason to reject evidence of an intelligent programmer.

"Well, if the event itself can occur, and has a pretty reasonable chance of occurring, then it is hardly an unreasonable assertion that the events could occur in the correct context to become significant. "

Bordering on tautology.

"Is this guaranteed? No. Is it impossible? No - which is by far the more significant point."

So you've proved that's it's not inconceivable. Forgive me if I'm not blown away by this conclusion.

"By definition the metaphysical being is unprovable until we ourselves become peers to that being somehow."

Are you making this up as you go along? Anaxagoras, Xenophanes, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato would disagree with you.

MgS said...

Cardinal Pole:

Right, so the Apostles invented a legend in order to satisfy their 'insecurity', but then gave up this new-found security and comfort in order to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth? Knowing that they would face persecution from the Jews, persecution from the pagans and ridicule from unbelievers?

I do not claim that faith itself has no useful purpose in the human experience. People do things in the face of amazing odds all the time - what's your point?

I suspect that you do not know the difference between man's original state and man's natural state. Unregenerate man is a part of nature. It is only by Baptism that he is elevated to the supernatural order.

I'm quite aware of the dogma that permeates Catholicism. If you want to believe that getting dunked in a bowl of water elevates you spiritually, knock yourself out...but that has exactly zero to do with my argument.

And probably more importantly, the problem of 'who programmed the programmer' is no reason to reject evidence of an intelligent programmer.

Nobody - and I do mean NOBODY - has ever presented tangible, knowable evidence of the existence of a meta being. In the absence of that evidence, and the ability to substantiate that evidence in a meaningful manner.

When you, or someone else, comes up with evidence that actually is only explained by invoking the supernatural, then I'll consider your line of argument more seriously. So far, it hasn't happened.

Are you making this up as you go along? Anaxagoras, Xenophanes, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato would disagree with you.

Those people wrote in an era with a very different set of knowledge. I suspect that they may have written quite differently in the modern era.

I do not reject metaphysical constructs as a way to frame thought, but I do not accept it as proof of anything.

BTW - I suggest you consider Evilscientist's comment above.

Cardinal Pole said...

"When you, or someone else, comes up with evidence that actually is only explained by invoking the supernatural, then I'll consider your line of argument more seriously. So far, it hasn't happened."

The Resurrection of Our Lord comes to mind. You reject this (I take it) for reasons that are unknown to me.

Basically, I take it that you have erected an impenetrable wall against any possibility that there might be more to reality than matter, energy, time and space. If God were to grant you a private revelation, you would dismiss it as an hallucination. If He worked some miracle for your senses, then over time you would rationalise it as some kind of false memory. You dismiss the evidence of Scripture and Tradition out of hand. What it amounts to is a demand for direct natural first-hand evidence for a set of supernatural truths. This demand is every bit as self-defeating as a believer demanding supernatural evidence for a set of natural truths.

"I do not claim that faith itself has no useful purpose in the human experience. People do things in the face of amazing odds all the time - what's your point?"

My point is why. Why do what the Apostles did if the basis for it weren't true, and they knew it not to be true? They stood to make no material gain from their endeavours, and their outlook was entirely other-worldly anyway. There have been any number of groups in history that wanted to do good; they all died out. If the Apostles were just starry-eyed altruists, why complicate it with difficult truth claims? Why not just go around quietly doing good?

The notion that the labours of the Apostles were just another case of 'beating the odds' is simply incredible. I suppose it comes down to a question of trust. Whom to believe, the Apostles and their successors, or the materialists? I am interested to know why it is that you cannot accept the testimony of the former.

And speaking of metaphysical concepts, whether real ones or mere constructs, I have done a new post on which I would like to hear from you:

http://cardinalpole.blogspot.com/2008/10/on-revenge-and-retribution-plus-request.html

MgS said...

The Resurrection of Our Lord comes to mind. You reject this (I take it) for reasons that are unknown to me.

Corroborating evidence - or rather the lack of it. The Bible isn't exactly rigorous in its portrayal of history, and I have yet to see any evidence that corroborates the story outside of that source.

As a statement of faith, it's fine. As evidence of something, it's damnably difficult to corroborate.

Basically, I take it that you have erected an impenetrable wall against any possibility that there might be more to reality than matter, energy, time and space.

No. It's not impenetrable - but when I'm looking at understanding the workings of the world around me, I find the invocation of metaphysical beings less than productive.

Cardinal Pole said...

Firstly, as to evilscientist's argument:

it does not, as it were, 'only have to happen once'. There needs to be (if you believe the evolutionists) a Big Bang, then the formation of a solar system, then the rise of life from non-life, then the rise of sexual reproduction from asexual reproduction, and so on. It's not a matter of a one-off 1 in 14 million, it's the same gambler winning every week for his whole life. And the wild speculations of Prof. Dawkins notwithstanding, there are not 14 million universes.

Now, as to your second comment:

"but when I'm looking at understanding the workings of the world around me, I find the invocation of metaphysical beings less than productive."

True enough, but I have not invooked a 'God of the gaps' argument. The point is that given the present order, a Creator is not inconceivable.

"Corroborating evidence - or rather the lack of it."

Four Gospels (plus the veritable 'fifth Gospel' in St. Paul's Letters) is not enough for you? Do you know how St. Luke went about gathering the evidence for his Gospel and the Acts? Do you deny that St. Paul's Letters are indeed his own (as dictated to a helper, though partly in his own hand)?

What I say next is not meant to sound patronising, but: have you actually thought out the sequence of events that would have been necessary for a fraud of the type that I presume you think the Good News is to have succeeded? We do have historical evidence that there were significant numbers of Christians even by the time of Nero. This success was the result of evangelisation of the Apostles. It is the Apostles (and their successors) on whom the truth of the Gospels stands or falls. What I can't understand is: why do you think they made it up (as I can only infer that's what you think they did)?

P.S. I have responded to your comment back at my blog. Your evasion was disappointing.

MgS said...

Cardinal:

(1) Probabilities happen. Get over it.

(2) There might be a metaphysical being involved in the picture - but there might not. Since I can explain things without invoking an unprovable, I choose to.

(3) No, the Gospels do not constitute verification. They are five different accounts, but they are also based upon each other (there is considerable evidence that the authors borrowed heavily from each other). I'm sorry, but Scripture has enough factual problems in it that I do not consider it corroborative of much without other substantiating evidence.

(4) I did not claim that the Bible is a fraud. I choose, however, not to confuse articles of faith with articles of fact. Faith is not concerned with the same notion of truth that I am discussing.

Cardinal Pole said...

"I did not claim that the Bible is a fraud."

But the Resurrection is either true or false, and if false then either an intentional or an unintentional deception. And I am not sure which is more incredible, a mass delusion (several thousand people since shortly after the Resurrection) or a deception whose propagation brought its propagators only earthly suffering (and which promised that very suffering in its own text).

"I choose, however, not to confuse articles of faith with articles of fact. Faith is not concerned with the same notion of truth that I am discussing."

Ah, so that's why you reject the testimony of the Apostles--you reject the very notion that Faith is intellectual assent to, as it were, supernatural facts. They refuse to meet you on your own terms, so you dismiss them. I am detecting a pattern here.

MgS said...

A "supernatural fact" as you put it is neither subject to challenge nor to inspection and refutation.

It is a statement of FAITH, not evidence. Statements of faith tend to make for really weak investigations of the world we live in.

BTW - I don't know if the resurrection is factual or not, and neither do you. You choose to accept the account of it as truth, I choose to be somewhat skeptical of the claim in the absence of corroborating evidence outside of scripture.

Véronique said...

Cardinal:

The earliest writing on the Resurrection is by Paul. It's clear from what he writes that "seeing the Lord" is a visionary experience. He considers his own vision to be exactly the same as that afforded the others -- same verb, "was seen by." The Resurrection was an assurance the disciples felt that God had vindicated his servant and rescued him from Hades. It was not a resuscitation.

The accounts in the gospels are legendary, and the later they were written, the more fanciful they become.

I could go on for much too long in a blog that's not designed for this kind of exchange, but I already do too much of this sort of thing in an online forum. Cheers.

Cardinal Pole said...

Véronique,

"[St. Paul] considers his own vision to be exactly the same as that afforded the others -- same verb, "was seen by.""

Yes, he saw the Risen Lord. You don't really believe that what the Apostles saw was a just figment of their imaginations do you? And the problem is that even you think it was a miraculous vision, a sort of private revelation, then it was still the work of God.

MgS,

"BTW - I don't know if the resurrection is factual or not, and neither do you."

Weak, weak, weak. Just make up your mind!

And I am still waiting for your thoughts on justice. Presumably you are trying desperately to find a way to overcome the insurmountable hurdle of the perfect correspondence between the worker being owed a just wage and the murderer being owed the death penalty.

MgS said...

Dear Cardinal:

The thing you don't seem to get here is that I have no problem with uncertainty.

When I say I do not know if the resurrection is true or not it is because I have no evidence that is compelling either way.

We have the story - rooted firmly in articles of faith, but a distinct lack of corroborating evidence. Therefore, I simply do not know, and I do not assign a particularly high truth value to the claim of it.

With respect to your needling about 'justice' - I'm not about to waste my time arguing with somebody who has clearly got their sense of the term firmly rooted in the era of Hammurabi.

BTW - with respect to your comment to Veronique:

You don't really believe that what the Apostles saw was a just figment of their imaginations do you? And the problem is that even you think it was a miraculous vision, a sort of private revelation, then it was still the work of God.

I believe that's called 'argument by assertion'. You invoke the supernatural as the only possible explanation, but that overlooks numerous perfectly legitimate, non-supernatural explanations - ranging from a form of group hypnosis to conspiracy.

As I said before - a statement of faith is not a statement of fact, and I choose not to confuse the two.

Véronique said...

"Yes, he saw the Risen Lord. You don't really believe that what the Apostles saw was a just figment of their imaginations do you? And the problem is that even you think it was a miraculous vision, a sort of private revelation, then it was still the work of God."

I have no way of knowing the nature of the experience of Paul and the more than 500 of whom he writes. It might have imagination or delusion or grief-induced hallucination or a genuine vision of God (I have no evidence for any gods, but I wouldn't eliminate the possibility).

My point is that at most the experience was visionary, not a resuscitation as is described with numerous discrepancies in the gospels.

Cardinal Pole said...

Véronique,

“It might have imagination or delusion or grief-induced hallucination or a genuine vision of God (I have no evidence for any gods, but I wouldn't eliminate the possibility).”

So you have confirmed that you are not a believer, but you are proposing to reveal to me the true meaning of Scripture, concealed all these years? No thanks, if I want to hear the ‘Resurrection as metaphor’ heresy I’ll go to someone like Dr. Spong, who at least actually believes that God is real. And I cannot understand why the primitive Christians would have augmented a metaphor with claims of a real bodily resurrection (not a mere resuscitation, since it was a passage to a new life, not a return to the old), when, as St. Augustine points out, this was an even bigger stumbling-block to non-believers.

MgS,

“You invoke the supernatural as the only possible explanation, but that overlooks numerous perfectly legitimate, non-supernatural explanations - ranging from a form of group hypnosis to conspiracy.”

We’re going round in circles now. I brought up those two possibilities before; you said that you did not think that the Resurrection was a fraud. And the notion of a ‘mass delusion’ (thousands of deluded witnesses) strains credulity.

You have fixated on the need for corroborating evidence, but seem to ignore the fact that any piece of evidence requires motives for credibility. I have explained what these motives would be, but you, like Véronique, try to get round this by telling me that the Apostles didn’t mean what they meant to mean (!).

“The thing you don't seem to get here is that I have no problem with uncertainty.”

That you have no problem with uncertainty is well-established. But you are capable of coming to a conclusion, even if only on the balance of probability. I can agree with Prof. Dawkins on at least one thing: agnostics really ought to make up their minds.

“With respect to your needling about 'justice' - I'm not about to waste my time arguing with somebody who has clearly got their sense of the term firmly rooted in the era of Hammurabi.”

In an earlier post you said that

“The debate itself told me a lot - fundamentally, what it boils down to is the Conservatives are running a campaign that boils down to not saying anything substantive.”
http://crystalgaze2.blogspot.com/2008/10/leaders-debate-impressions.html

In Australian political discourse we call this a ‘small target strategy’—make oneself as small a target as possible and hope to win by default, or at least minimise one’s losses. Perhaps you have been following Mr. Harper’s doings for too long now, because you are starting to resemble him. You refuse to pin yourself down to a simple definition of the key terms. You say that you told me what justice was earlier, but then were unwilling or unable to point out where. Be honest, MgS. It’s because you don’t know what justice is. Nor do you not what is retribution, conscience or morality.

Perhaps you think that hiding behind glib one-liners you can avoid committing yourself to a definition. But suppose I am stuck in the ‘era of Hammurabi’; what has changed in human nature since then? You will say ‘the social contract has changed’. But if it’s just a matter of a social contract, then if one agrees to enter a social contract that specifies that the penalty for murder is death, presumably this is perfectly just. Presumably a death penalty for, say, parking infringements would be just too, so long as one had agreed to the contract that specified this. Basically, justice to you is whatever your tastes and preferences dictate, varying case by case. Please tell me I’m wrong.

MgS said...

Cardinal -

You are getting so far off topic it's not even funny.

If you cannot grasp what corroborating evidence means (e.g. independent, verifiable, etc.) - especially in the context of Roman-era historical record, then I think you need to go figure it out.

If you wish to snipe about other posts on this blog, take it to the appropriate post, and keep it on topic.

Cardinal Pole said...

"If you cannot grasp what corroborating evidence means (e.g. independent, verifiable, etc.) - especially in the context of Roman-era historical record, then I think you need to go figure it out."

Motives for credibility precede any piece of corroborating evidence. The problem with the need for such evidence being 'independent' is that whoever saw the Risen Lord would, by that very fact, cease to be impartial. In other words, believers are the only witnesses to the Resurrection, because anyone who witnessed the Resurrection would thereby become a believer.

As for being 'verifiable', you apear to mean this in the sense used in the natural sciences rather than in the courtroom. Credibility is verification.

And what does your 'etc.' include? Please help out this poor benighted religionist.

As for 'sniping about other topics', clearly you refuse to disclose what, if anything, is your theory of justice. So be it. You are welcome to do so at my blog anytime though.

MgS said...

Motives for credibility precede any piece of corroborating evidence.

You are so incredibly wrong in your supposition here it's not even funny.

The question you miss is particularly significant - namely the lack of corroborating accounts outside of scripture, in an era when written record was actually very significant. We can, for example, sift out the editorial aggrandizement of figures like Julius Caesar or Gaius Marius by Roman era historians because of the corroborating evidence. There is no "motive" here, I'm asking for the corresponding accounts else where.

To argue that "everyone who witnessed it became a believer" is sloppy reasoning at best - an attempt to dismiss the concern rather than address it.

Corroborating evidence is an independent (e.g. non-scriptural) account that corresponds materially with the scriptural accounts.

If, as my own study suggests, that the only material description of the story is contained in scripture, then there is a legitimate need to be somewhat cautious about assuming the biblical account as being factually accurate. We already know that even the historians of that era were prone to a surprising amount of editorializing in their accounting of events, therefore any singular source has to be treated with a degree caution with respect to its factual accuracy.

Cardinal Pole said...

"To argue that "everyone who witnessed it became a believer" is sloppy reasoning at best - an attempt to dismiss the concern rather than address it."

No no, what I meant is that there will be no independent witnesses to the matter (in this case, the Resurrection), since whoever saw the Risen Lord in His glorified body would thereby have to become a believer. Impartial corroboration is an impossibility. If, say, an impartial Greek of that time saw the Risen Lord, he would then have to become a believer, wouldn't he? All one can do is examine the motives for credibility of those who provided the testimonies that we do have.

MgS said...

No no, what I meant is that there will be no independent witnesses to the matter (in this case, the Resurrection), since whoever saw the Risen Lord in His glorified body would thereby have to become a believer. Impartial corroboration is an impossibility.

Put simply - horsefeathers!

That is exactly what I meant when I called your earlier comment sloppy reasoning.

You cannot replace evidence with an article of faith and still derive a meaningful fact. At best you have a new supposition - which you need to substantiate. (and by your own admission, unable or unwilling to do so - allegedly it's "impossible")

Cardinal Pole said...

I REALLY need to stop giving people the benefit of the doubt; you just don't get what I'm saying, do you? If one saw Mohammed ascending to Heaven in a fiery chariot then one would have to have become a Muslim. If one saw the Risen Lord in His glorified Body then one would have to become a Christian--the event would no longer have to be accepted on trust or authority, but on the evidence of one's own senses. So the only people who could possibly attest to the event are believers. This is no independent corroborating evidence because there can be no such corroborating evidence. All you can do is examine the motives for credibility, bringing us back to the point I have been pursuing all along. You have said that you don't think it was a fraud; a mass delusion affecting thousands is quite a stretch, and there was no material/financial gain to be made.

MgS said...

Cardinal:

If one saw Mohammed ascending to Heaven in a fiery chariot then one would have to have become a Muslim. If one saw the Risen Lord in His glorified Body then one would have to become a Christian

The point of both examples is that in the modern era, both suffer from the evolution of legend. They have been adorned and embellished dramatically over centuries, and there is a distinct problem with the veracity of these stories.

I would suggest you spend a little time in Crossan's The Historical Jesus and Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ, both of which address some of the problems with the scriptural accounts of the resurrection of Christ.

These are not purely theological problems, but problems of record - in fact Harpur is quite blunt in questioning the accuracy of the accounts in scripture for precisely the same reasons that I have been putting forward to you - namely the lack of corroborating, independent, evidence.

I reiterate my point - claiming an article of faith as an explanation in such matters is plain sloppy reasoning outside of the seminary.

Cardinal Pole said...

Corrigendum: "This is no independent corroborating evidence because there can be no such corroborating evidence" should read "There is no independent corroborating evidence ..."

I'd better make this my last comment, since we're going round in circles. Given that one has been convinced that the event (the Resurrection) has occured, then one looks to faith for an explanation. The two are distinct questions. The only reason a priori to reject it is a prejudice against the supernatural. Having admitted the possibility of a supernatural event, one examines the motives for credibility of the given evidence.

MgS said...

We aren't going in circles - you are using circular logic which invokes an unprovable, unsubstantiated assertion.