TIA Tuesday: Consider the possibilities…

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.

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Posted in Science, TIA, Unapologetics. 11 Comments »

11 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: Consider the possibilities…”

  1. jorgaba Says:

    These “odds” arguments are always so preposterous and stupid, it boggles the mind that people fixate on them so.

    The argument is a bit like saying, isn’t amazing that a house exists at the EXACT longitude and latitude I happen to sleep every night, down to a resolution of several hundred square feet of terrestrial surface area. Think about that — of ALL POSSIBLE longitudes and latitudes on the earth, there is a house EXACTLY where I live….isn’t that amazing? What are the odds?

    Well, no it isn’t amazing — the odds are pretty good, considering that the presence of a house actually exerts causal influence on where I live and bed down for the night. If I didn’t live in this particular location, I’d live in some other location with a house. People who use the anthropic argument seem to completely miss the point that life is an effect — it is CAUSED by the conditions amenable to it.

    The bit about the unlikelihood of universes tuned for us is even more ridiculous. You can’t judge the odds of anything without some knowledge of a probability distribution. We don’t know anything at all about the probability distribution of possible universes, and we know equally nothing about the probability distribution of emergent intelligence given the probability distribution of possible universes.

    The anthropic principle really is a non-starter.

  2. Ric Says:

    Yeah, the anthropic argument used by theists is ridiculous and fails miserably, as you have pointed out admirably. I also like Nassim Taleb’s refutation in his “The Black Swan.” He says something like: “The anthropic argument is similar to a winner of a lottery arguing after the fact that he must have been destined to win because, well, he won.” Great logic, huh?

  3. VorJAck Says:

    I love the anthrocentrism of this kind of thinking: “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.”

    The assumption is that we are the point of things. All the other potential universes that could be are inferior, because they wouldn’t have led to us. And they call atheists arrogant.

    It’s all very reminiscent of the old Douglas Adams line: “… imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'”

  4. Airor Says:

    Actually the ‘couple thousand’ bits of information is a hell of a lot when you’re talking about possibilities. How many different paragraphs can be written? Well, 2^2000 is about 10^602 or so, which is beyond astronomical. The number of protons in the universe (Eddingtons Number) is around 10^79 and this number is 10^523 times larger than that.

    Of course those are only the imaginable possibilities for the active gene information content, but what about the valid possibilities? Well, imagine how small a percentage that are valid and still get quadrillions of different eyes? One in 10^577. Thats vanishingly small. Its so small as to be unbelievable, so there are probably much more (astronomically more) valid possibilities for an eye.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  5. valdemar Says:

    The late Douglas Adams, a good friend of Richard Dawkins, made the point that, if a puddle could think, it would no doubt find it remarkably significant that the shallow depression in which it found itself was of exactly the right size and shape. ‘Shallow’ and ‘depression’ being key words when anyone uses the anthropic principle as an argument for the existence of god(s).
    Really, nobody has yet demonstrated that life as we know it isn’t extremely rare and abnormal in this cosmos. It may be that supercold intelligent beings drifting between the stars are ‘normal’, while planet bound, liquid-water entities are vanishingly rare. (And if I’ve just hit on the explanation for Dark Matter, can somone send me a Nobel application form?) And such supercold beings might evolve in universes with rather different laws from our own – ones with no stars, for instance.
    Vox Day seems remarkably unimaginative for a leading intellectual…

  6. Airor Says:

    Alas Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials Trilogy has beat you to the punch. In his story the first dark matter creature to evolve named himself God and convinced everyone that he created the universe.

  7. jorgaba Says:

    “Vox Day seems remarkably unimaginative for a leading intellectual…”

    Not an “intellectual” (it’s not even something he would agree to), but certainly a privileged elite.

    Rather, what strikes me about Vox is that he is extraordinarily unimaginative for a fantasy writer:


  8. Bacopa Says:

    I think it really is possible that space may be curved such that pi is not a constant. Consider the surface of a sphere. If I pick a point and define a curved line such that all its points are equidistant to that point, I’ll have a circle, but the ratio of the circumfrence to the diamater will be less than pi. If I go a bit further out I will find yet another ratio.

    Anthropic arguments are all a bit weird. For all I know the values of the constants are the product of some higher level necessity, some set of meta-laws that would be nearly impossible to discover. Or perhaps all physically possible worlds exist, so there’s no wonder this one exists. Or perhaps Lewis was right and Modal Realism is true, then all coherently concievable worlds exist.

    But in the end, stronger versions of the anthropic principle are poor explainations of why things are the case or that things have been made to be the case. Consider the twists and turns of of world history that led to my making this blog comment at this exact time. If Vinland had survived, the nation I live in would not be what is today and I would not have come into being. If I got a phone call just 30 mins ago I might have put this all off for tomorrow. And what about the schedule change at work a year ago? If that had not happened I wouldn’t be reading this tonight. The odds that I would make this comment are long beyond calculation. Surely some force has been guiding not just my own life, but the entire flow of human history.

  9. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Kinda makes you wonder if “free will” is all it’s cracked up to be, doesn’t it?

    I’ll have to think about your curved pi example: it seems to me that once you start working with curved (i.e. non-linear) diameters, the ratio of the (curved) diameter to the circumference is no longer pi. But it’s early in the morning and I’ll need at least two cups of coffee before I can begin to do this kind of math.

  10. Bacopa Says:

    There can also be coherent geometries where space is curved the other way. There’s no constant pi there either, and geometric figres are not scaleable. There is not just an absulute angle, the symmetric right angle, but an absolute length as well, the maximum side of an equilaterateral triangle just before it flies apart into three lines each parallel to the other two. Euclid may have scalable figures and constant ratios, but Lobachevsky gave us an absolute length.

    But consider my previous example of the closed, sphere-like uinverse where pi varies and the circumference is always leess than pi times the diameter. Could there be such a world? In a sense you are already living in it! We live in a universe closed in time. When we peer at distant galaxies we are looking backward in time as the speed of light is finite. The universe is expanding. The visible universe we are looking into might more poperly be called a retroverse, we are not seeing things as they are, but as they were.

    Because we are looking into a younger universe and the universe is expandanding, we are looking into a smaller universe. If I were to draw a circle of things in the universe/retroverse equidistant to that distant galaxy, and measure it against twice the distance the light traveled through an expanding universe to reach my telescope, I would find the circle was less than pi times twice the radius.

    So, spacetime is closed in at least one direction. Whether it’s closed in both is another issue.

    I am not a cosmologist. Most of the ideas I present here came from 70s Nova shows I subconsciously grocked at age eleven and a book called _Poetry of the Universe_ by Osserman.

  11. » TIA Tuesday: Imagine there’s no heaven Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] we saw before, the flaw in the anthropic principle, as an argument for an intelligent Creator, is that it fails […]