TIA Tuesday: Consider the possibilities…June 10, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Here’s a warm up for today’s excursion into the wild world of TIA. Ready? How many answers are there to the question “what’s 2 plus 2?”
Right, it’s a trick question. There’s an infinite number of answers: 48, 823, 1, “walnuts”, and so on. But there’s only one correct and relevant answer: 4. In other words, there’s a difference between the number of imaginable possibilities, and the number of valid possibilities. We need to keep that in mind, because today Vox is going to try and take down Richard Dawkins by appealing to the anthropic principle. Let’s see if he makes out any better than Geisler and Turek did.
The anthropic principle has been an embarrassing problem for secular scientists in recent decades due to the way in which the probability of the universe and Earth just happening to be perfectly suitable for human life is very, very low. The extreme unlikelihood of everything being not too hot, not too cold, not too big, and not too small, to put it very crudely, has often been cited as evidence that the universe has been designed for us, presumably by God.
“Presumably” is right. This is an argument that is built on presumptions, but more significantly, it’s built on a failure to distinguish between imaginable possibilities, and valid possibilities.
For example, if I hold a ball above the ground, and drop it, what is the probability that it will fall down? According to the law of gravity, unless that ball is acted on by some other force, the probability of falling down is pretty much 100%. It doesn’t matter how many different possible directions you can trace out from the ball’s original position, the number of valid possibilities is 1, and therefore the odds of it falling down are 1:1 or 100%.
How many possible universes are there? Well, we can imagine quite a number of them, simply by varying the parameters that describe this universe. We might, for example, imagine a universe in which pi is an even 3 instead of an irrational number starting with 3.14159 and so on. Or why not 2? or 5? or 57,684? On the other hand, how many of those “possible” universes would actually be valid? Could we make any of them actually work?
For example, how exactly would you go about producing a universe in which the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is greater (or less) than pi? Would the distance around the circle increase while the distance across the circle remained the same? If space curved in such a way as to make the circumference longer, wouldn’t it also increase the diameter by the same amount, thus maintaining the ratio?
Many people have speculated about a range of “possible” universes, but so far the only possibility that has been shown to be a valid possibility is this universe we’re in now. I’m perfectly happy to keep an open mind here, and to listen to any new discoveries that someone might make, but by my count, we have one anthropic universe out of a total of one known valid possibility. That’s a 1:1 ratio, hardly a low probability. If we discover another valid possibility, then the odds will drop to 1:2, and then we can start to explore whether or not there are any factors that make some possibilities more likely than others (the way gravity skews the odds in favor of falling down). Vox’s gloating about the anthropic “problem” is both exaggerated and premature.
But Vox has another agenda here: once again, he’s looking for some pretext he can use to disparage Dawkins’s intellect. In this particular case, Dawkins tries to convey, to a non-technical audience, some sense of the unbelievable range of valid possibilities within which life might arise spontaneously. He poses a hypothetical example, using familiar large numbers like “billion,” in order to communicate the idea that the odds are not quite as unfriendly as we might naively suppose. That’s all the pretext Vox needs to accuse Dawkins of mathematical ineptitude:
Now, Richard Dawkins is arguably not an individual particularly well suited to play around with probability. He may not be quite as mathematically handicapped as Sam Harris, but he is known to have some issues in this regard, being openly mocked for his “comic authority” and “fatal attraction” to mathematical concepts by the French mathematician Marcel-Paul Schützenberger.
In a footnote, Vox refers to this interview in which Schützenberger begins by admitting that “Biology is, of course, not my specialty,” and then goes on to prove what a serious handicap this is by making the ludicrous mistake of assuming that, because a gene can be “on” or “off,” its information content is equal to a single binary computer bit.
Schematically, a gene is like a unit of information. It has simple binary properties. When active, it is an elementary information-theoretic unit, the cascade of gene instructions resembling the cascade involved in specifying a recipe. Now let us return to the example of the eye. Darwinists imagine that it requires what? A thousand or two thousand genes to assemble an eye, the specification of the organ thus requiring one or two thousand units of information? This is absurd! Suppose that a European firm proposes to manufacture an entirely new household appliance in a Southeast Asian factory. And suppose that for commercial reasons, the firm does not wish to communicate to the factory any details of the appliance’s function — how it works, what purposes it will serve. With only a few thousand bits of information, the factory is not going to proceed very far or very fast.
It’s easy to see why Vox would embrace Schützenberger as a fellow traveller along Smug Road. Not only does Schützenberger chastize Dawkins for failing to stick to his specialty, he immediately turns around and pontificates about what biology means even though, by admission and demonstration, he clearly does not understand the material he is talking about. (Hmm, where have we seen that before?) And lest we suppose that we might excuse Schützenberger on the grounds that he was speaking of “bits” in the sense of “small pieces” rather than in the sense of computer bits, his very next sentence proves that he is indeed speaking of binary 1’s and 0’s: “A few thousand bits of information, after all, yields only a single paragraph of text,” he says. A few thousand binary bits are about a paragraph; a few thousand “small pieces of information” would be a small book.
A gene, of course, is much more than just a 1 or a 0. How could we recognize so many different types of gene, after all, if each was no more than a single binary digit? Even a mathematician should be able to see how far off base Schützenberger’s error is. Not only does a gene contain much more “information” than a single boolean, it’s a functional biochemical prototype whose chemical properties are part of the manufacturing process that ultimately builds the proteins and other cell components. Rather than just “a paragraph of text,” giving an organism the genes for an eye is like giving a factory the molds, dies, templates, and rigs needed to build the product–essentially giving them most of the production line, with the remainder being parts known to be readily available in the vicinity already. Schützenberger is just out to lunch.
Notice, too, that Vox seems to have overlooked this glaring flaw in this supposed “expert testimony” against Dawkins. He so fixated on discrediting Dawkins that he’s willing to go along with anything Schützenberger says. Sure, a gene is nothing more than a nucleotidal 1 or 0. Anything you say boss. If it makes Dawkins look bad, it’s good enough.
Back to Dawkins. As I mentioned before, when Dawkins talks about “one in a billion” chances of DNA arising spontaneously, he’s not going into the actual research into abiogenesis. Life does not arise by chance, scientifically speaking. If DNA just happened by a lucky, random event, then research into the origin of life is pointless, because you’ll never re-create a purely random occurrence. And that’s not what scientists are trying to do.
Science works by tracing back the chain of causality, the operation of cause-and-effect, which is the opposite of “by chance.” What researchers are doing today is studying the natural forces that affect the combinations of organic molecules. Just as gravity influences dropped balls to skew the odds in favor of falling in only one direction, the laws of chemistry influence undirected chemical interactions in order to increase their chances of moving in one direction rather than any of innumerable other directions. The interactions are sometimes subtle and complex, which is why it is such a tricky question to answer.
This makes the question difficult to discuss for lay audiences, because the average listener would need quite a bit of time and training to come up to speed on the technical details. For popular presentations, it’s more time-efficient to sacrifice detailed technical accuracy for analogies that convey the general sense of the matter without getting bogged down in minutiae. The “one in a billion” is a very rough oversimplification intended for a non-technical discussion with a non-technical audience.
It’s typical, and revealing, that Vox chooses to attack Dawkins about the alleged mathematical “inaccuracies” in Dawkins’s simplified, “layman’s terms” illustrations, rather than finding (or even seeking) any significant problem in Dawkins’s more technical and rigorous scientific work. Dawkins isn’t really wrong here. Vox is just looking for excuses to gripe about Dawkins. But that’s par for the course.
Vox isn’t done with Dawkins by any means, nor is he finished with the anthropic argument. But that’s enough TIA for one week. We’ll pick this up again about 7 days from now, assuming the cosmic constant for the value of a week doesn’t change before then.