Did life happen “by chance”? Yes! Chance is not randomness

It is said that General Montgomery kept a picture of Field Marshal Rommel on his desk. In order to outwit Rommel he had to understand how he thought. Arguing against creationists is an on-going battle, and to persuade effectively we need to understand how creationists think. Creationists will commonly refuse to believe that the living world we see around us “arose by chance”, and the scientist will reply: But you misunderstand evolution, yes mutations happen by chance, but evolution overall is not a random process.

I was reminded of this by Tweets by science broadcaster Brian Cox, the particle physicist who is enthusing large swathes of British teenagers about science, and managing the near impossible, getting actual science content onto prime-time BBC television. Professor Cox was annoyed by a misunderstanding promulgated on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day religious slot.

Brian Cox "chance" tweet 2

Brian Cox "chance" tweet 1

First, what does a scientist mean by the above terms? The mutations that are the raw material for evolution are “random”. In statistics “random” means that different outcomes have the same probability, and in this specific context “random” means that the mutations occur regardless of whether they are harmful or beneficial to the organism. There is nothing that “knows” which mutations would be harmful or beneficial, and so there is nothing that can bias the mutations towards one or the other.

Natural selection, however, is the opposite of random, it is a sieve that preferentially selects the mutations that are beneficial (organisms with these mutations leave more descendents) and preferentially rejects the mutations that are harmful (organisms with them leave fewer descendents). As Professor Cox tweeted, natural selection is non-random. The combination of random mutations and non-random selection of those mutations is the engine of evolution, the engine that adapts an organism to its environment, leading to the whole wonderful panoply of life. As summarised by Richard Dawkins: “Life results from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators”.

If “chance” were a synonym of “random” then the complexity of today’s life would not have originated “by chance”, since it results from the highly directional process of Darwinian evolution, which is a one-way ratchet continually selecting organisms that better fit their environment.

But is that really what people mean by “chance”? Well, no. In common parlance, “chance” is not a statement about probability, it is statement about intent and design. A “chance outcome” is one that no-one intended. The most salient aspect of a “game of chance” is not so much randomness but that crucial elements are not under conscious control, in contrast to, say, chess. If you say “I bumped into my friend Alex by chance”, you are not making a statement about the probability of your meeting, you are saying that neither of you had planned or intended it.

Thus the primary definition of “chance” is (e.g. from Oxford Dictionaries) “the occurrence of events in the absence of any intention or design”. Does life result from a process without any intention or design? The scientific answer is “Yes”! To a scientist life’s complexity does occur “by chance”!

Replying to a creationist who refuses to accept that life arose “by chance” by talking about random and non-random process is missing the point. The creationist makes a much more profound rejection of the idea. After all, the creationist has no problem with processes that lack intelligent intervention but are still non-random and directional. For example rain water running downwards and eventually running into the sea is directional, but such processes (the creationist thinks) don’t produce complexity, they don’t produce life.

The creationist is a vitalist, he doesn’t accept that something living can arise from non-living material or from merely physical processes, whether directional or not. To him life can only arise from previous life, and ultimately from a god. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Dust alone would not have sufficed.

The creationist doesn’t accept Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that life can arise from non-life, that both living and non-living matter are physical material, obeying only physical processes, and that the difference between them is just the result of replication, replication after replication, with random variation and non-random selection of the variants.

The idea that, over vast eons of time, over billions of generations, such a process could generate complexity, is unfathomable to a creationist. It is unfathomable because his brain is a product of that process, produced to do a job of promoting more replication, and thus his brain’s intuition is tuned to understanding changes that can occur within human lifetimes, not to understanding the eons of Earth’s deep time.

Thus the creationist intuitively rejects the idea that Darwinian evolution can produce complexity, when in truth it is the only process that can produce complexity of the degree seen to dazzling magnificence in Earth’s life. To a creationist such complexity could only have arisen by intelligent purpose.

In saying that “life could not have arisen by chance” it is not the presence of randomness that the creationist is complaining about, it is the absence of intention and purpose. And thus a response about random and non-random processes can only be a small part of the reply.

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34 thoughts on “Did life happen “by chance”? Yes! Chance is not randomness

  1. oarubio

    The neat thing about all of this is that a rational combination of God and evolution answers everything. Wish more could realize that an evolutionary process designed by, started by and moderated by Him and His laws (plus interevention when He chooses!) is very reasonable.

    Reply
    1. Ferdinand (@StFerdinandIII)

      Evolution is not a science but a cult. The chance of a single protein self organizing is not only impossible but 20 to the power of 300, meaning that in the Darwin fable there is not enough time or story telling for 1 single protein to self create. Your body has more than 2 million…..Evolution fails basic bio chemistry and math. It is truly uneducated. Fiction and rhetoric are not science.

  2. Gary Hill

    Excellent description of the random-chance difference. Just a few comments if I may.

    “The creationist doesn’t accept Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that life can arise from non-life”

    Well, creationists wouldn’t, of course, but this wasn’t actually Darwin’s idea. He famously steered well clear of making any claims of abiogenesis apart from some very brief speculation about warm ponds.

    “…..the highly directional process of Darwinian evolution, which is a one-way ratchet continually selecting organisms that better fit their environment”.

    I’m not sure that you can so easily equate directionality with fit and by doing so you (unwittingly I’m sure) play into the hands of the theistic evolution crowd. Natural selection has no inevitable direction in which to go as you correctly point out. But the most successful organisms on this planet (those with the best fit to environment, in terms of their endurance) are definitely not the more complex. I discount Homo sapiens here, as we are a comparatively recent species that conceivably may not last any longer than some of our Homo forebears).

    “thus his brain’s intuition is tuned to understanding changes that can occur within human lifetimes”

    At the less educated end of the creationist market, this hits the nail on the head. In my experience one of the major stumbling blocks between a scientific mind-set and a literal Biblical or Koranic mind-set is their fundamental inability to envisage or even consider longer periods of time than scripture alludes to. Only the other day I was told that the best evidence us ‘evolutionists’ have is our claim that the universe is billions of years old. Well, yes……if we are ever lucky enough to observe a universe less than, say, 5 billion years old, there may well be no natural selection to observe. Similarly, if the universe really is 6000 years old then natural selection would be considerably harder to detect. Yet we have abundant evidence that……

    Reply
  3. Anton Szautner

    oarubio: Pardon, but I am not at all persuaded that a conclusion of compatibility existing between evidence acquired from outside the mind (strongly indicating absence), and an unsubstantiated figment manufactured inside it (a claim that wants verification), is either rational or reasonable. It is, at best, a wishful opinion and a choice which expressly requires the suspension of reason and rationality.

    Reply
    1. Ferdinand (@StFerdinandIII)

      Evolution posits abiogenesis – an impossibility, and information being created from nothing – another impossibility. It ignores the physical laws of thermodynamics and offers up fairy tales of scales to feathers [impossible], or scum to scientist [impossible]. It is basically a cult which offers the besmirched name of ‘science’ to Atheists who like the Nazis and Communists, can use it to murder others and enforce their cult’s control.

    2. oarubio

      Just like the Rockies, things of the world as we see them haven’t always been this way. Climate isn’t the only thing to experience ongoing change.

      There logical reasons why the current supply of evolution theories don’t quite add up. It’s because we can never understand completely the process God used to create us or the rest of the universe. Most importantly, we’ll never discover how He put the first souls into us. Only He knows that.

      We can try to figure how God worked within His universe to create what He did — so long as we never lose sight of the fact that HE did it and we’re the beneficiaries of it, not the creators.

  4. Steve

    Some problems I would appreciate clarification on.. It does not seem feasible that chemicaLS COULD ARRANGE THEMSELVES IN SUCH A WAY AS TO PRODUCE LIFE. A single cell has golgi apparatus, a cell membrane, endoplasmic reticulum, mitochondria, etc. Enzymes(which are proteins) are neede to make proteins, at least quickly enough for an organism to stay alive.
    Too many coincidences would have to happen at the same time for a cell to form. DNA is an amazing information storing device, but that information can’t program itself, can it? We all started as a single cell. Mitosis occurs, producing replicas. How can that one cell “know” to start making muscle cells, bone cells, nerve cells, etc? Then how does your spleen, liver, heart, lungs, etc go in exactly the right spot? Not mention your brain, miles of blood vessels, and the ability to repair and replace cells( we lose about 3oo million per minute).
    I also get that natural selection and evolution occur. How many trillions of bacteria are studied?
    There is certain evidence of beneficial mutations, for example antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. But, in all these studies the bacteria produce, you guessed it, more bacteria, not a new type of organism.
    Any clarifications are welcomed. I may have misconceptions, but true evolution theory if traced back, says we all have a common ancestor( all life, not just humans). I see blue whales, ants, dogs, clams, monkeys and humans. For humans it is claimed we and chimps once had a common ancestor, which is hard enough to believe. But if you keep tracing back, ALL life originated with simple single cell organisms. It doe not seem possible we would see the diversity we do today no matter how much time has elapsed.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Too many coincidences would have to happen at the same time for a cell to form.

      Creationists are wrong to think that something like the modern cell is the simplest life form that could exist, and thus that life would have had to start by jumping straight to a cell. The cells we see are highly evolved, the first replicators would have been much, much simpler.

      DNA is an amazing information storing device, but that information can’t program itself, can it?

      The programming came from natural selection.

      How can that one cell “know” to start making muscle cells, bone cells, nerve cells, etc?

      The information to make all of those is encoded in the genes. That’s what they are there for.

      Then how does your spleen, liver, heart, lungs, etc go in exactly the right spot?

      That is determined by a series of chemical gradients in the developing embyro. Chemical gradients mean that different genes are triggered in different places.

      But, in all these studies the bacteria produce, you guessed it, more bacteria, not a new type of organism.

      Human studies usually last a few years, and are thus vastly shorter than the billions of years that life on earth has evolved. You wouldn’t expect to see hundreds of millions of years worth of change in just a few years.

      For humans it is claimed we and chimps once had a common ancestor, which is hard enough to believe.

      I find it easy enough to believe — and the evidence for it is clear and copious.

      But if you keep tracing back, ALL life originated with simple single cell organisms.

      Yes.

      It doe not seem possible we would see the diversity we do today no matter how much time has elapsed.

      Arguments from mere Personal Incredulity are not convincing.

    2. oarubio

      Wisdom must also consider the possibility that God created evolution. We can believe in just science, just creationism or look at the REALLY big picture which results in both. Science on its own, doesn’t necessarily care or want a “who did it?” Religion/faith can’t be restricted so that it limits God’s creativity.
      It is impossible for Science to prove or disprove the existence of God. Religion was never meant to be a purely technical or historical handbook. Or as Mrs. Anna said in “The King and I:” “Your Majesty, the Bible is not a book of science, it’s a book of faith.”
      It’s wonderful to have God and the science He created.

    3. Coel Post author

      Wisdom must also consider the possibility that God created evolution.

      Sure, but wisdom also says that the way to evaluate that possbilility is on the scientific evidence.

      Science on its own, doesn’t necessarily care or want a “who did it?”

      But if there were a “who” who had done it then science would be the best tool to find that out. It is revealling that science produces no evidence for any gods.

      It is impossible for Science to prove or disprove the existence of God.

      That’s simply not true, and is merely an excuse put forward by those who want to believe in god but have no evidence. If there was a god then science could find the evidence and prove it. And science could disprove the existence of any god who amounts to something, any god who actually affects the universe. The only gods which can’t be proved or disproved are apophatic gods that are indistinguishable from non-existent gods.

    4. Tony

      Last thought: science is limited to what is detectable within the universe, not outside. If I don’t mess my life life up, I’ll look forward to seeing you in the afterlife 🙂

  5. Gary Hill

    “Wisdom must also consider the possibility that God created evolution”

    It is of course possible that God created evolution but if so, we would need to ask ourselves what sort of an intelligent entity would let 99% of his creation become extinct in the most gruesome of circumstances and allowed the currently living species, including humans, to suffer so much from pathogens, predation, congenital malformities, natural disasters, gene replication errors etc.

    “It is impossible for Science to prove or disprove the existence of God.”

    Science isn’t bothering to find out. When science first started out it was conducted first by Islamic scholars and later by Christian scholars who all believed in God and used science explicitly to find out more about God and the creation. As we accumulated knowledge science changed it’s collective mind about God as it was realised that there were naturalistic explanations for all the phenomena investigated. Not a single scientific investigation has uncovered any evidence of a non-naturalistic explanation for anything. It’s not as if we don’t have the methodology. It would only take one observable unexplainable variation in physical laws to make science sit up very abruptly. If there were any unpredicted variation that showed some pattern that we could not attribute to any natural cause then science would be it’s steering it’s research endeavours in that direction, if only for the funding opportunities that would become available.

    But after centuries of looking, using ever-increasing sensitive instruments there’s nothing. No sign at all. If there is a God he doesn’t seem to interact with the universe at all. Which means he’s of no consequence to us. And theology has faired no better. Far older than science and it hasn’t even come up with even a logical argument for his existence which can’t be demolished by empirical evidence or a keener philosophical mind. Indeed, theologians can’t even come up with a definition of God they can all agree on. And when it comes to explanations for the hard bits like the problem of evil…..let’s be honest, it’s not even off the starting blocks.

    As far as science is concerned God has gone the way of leprechauns. It is impossible for Science to prove or disprove the existence of leprechauns. Of course they might live in some other dimension, beyond space and time, and ….etc etc

    You’ve probably had personal experience of God or something you might describe as ‘spiritual’. I have too. But I wouldn’t hesitate to place my bets that the cause was to do with the way my neurons were firing and nothing more. Doesn’t mean it’s not a buzz though and shouldn’t be explored, but let’s not use that as an excuse to spend all our waking moments veering away from reality.

    Reply
    1. Tony

      We have reached an impasse! Best wishes to all of us and our finite “little gray cells” as Poirot liked to call them.

  6. Ron Murphy

    Hi Coel,

    I’d like to nit pick a little. In what way is natural selection ‘directed’? Directed towards what?

    There is no evidence whatsoever that any of this is directed at all. There is a suspicion that the process of evolution may indeed follow some statistically significant law that ensures species become more complex, and that complexity, in some organs, such as brains, become intelligent, as we understand that term. But none of it was directed specifically towards us or any other species. There is no way to predict, ahead of time, what ‘direction’ evolution will take. In that sense we are here by accident. Even though each survival outcome, each fitness for survival to reproduce, is somewhat deterministic, it is not overall anything but chance.

    The overall ‘directedness’ is only a post hoc rationalisation of what actually happened. At any point in evolution we can look back and say, well species A survived because it had these traits, and species B became extinct because it had these other traits – but that does not make the process of evolution directional in any reasonable sense.

    The point that is being made when evolutionary biologists say that mutations might be random but natural selection is not, is the following. The anti-evolutionists object that a singular random event could not produce a whole human, or any other of the less complex organisms. And that’s right. But any specific random event contributes to survival, to extinction, or is neutral, according to the environment in which it occurs. Deterministic events act on the mutated organisms, the individuals to which the mutation has spread through inheritance; but only at a point-by-point basis in space and time.

    A mutation may be contribute to survival if it occurs in one environment, and to extinction in another. It may be beneficial if it occurs at one time and detrimental at another. The coming together of all these events, changes in the inanimate environment, biological mutations and changes in other animals and plants in the environment, are collectively a chance coincidental coming together.

    The meteorite that contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs was just as much a chance occurrence as any mutation is. There might be intelligent dinosaurs or birds having some online debate right now, had mammals not managed to find themselves in the accidental position of becoming dominant. And then of course it is an accident that of all the mammals we find ourselves here now in charge. Some other mammalian animal might just have well become dominant. Any of the other hominids may have got here instead of us. It’s is quite feasible that there could have been no technology and no internet debates at all at this point in Earth’s history, had some other species been dominant instead of our ancestors. Or for that matter some other species might have had descendants that would have surpassed our abilities, had their ancestors only, by chance, become dominant instead of our ancestors.

    My response to any thesitic claims to evolution as part of God’s plan is as follows.

    Evolution completely destroys the myth of human specialness, and all the theology that claims specialness.

    What it does not do is tell us anything about how the universe began and what processes made it come about: something like a god, or multiple gods, good gods, evil gods, or of course any number of no theistic causes. The issue that atheist science proponents have with theism is not that it is a totally implausible hypothesis, but that it is one that has no more going for it than any other non-theistic explanation. All claims to a personal good God that cares about us humans is just pie in the sky fantasy. There’s nothing to back it up. All claims to revelation can just as easily be explained as neurologically determined brain experiences; because there’s plenty of science to illustrate those.

    If theists want to claim that evolution is itslef God’s process, they first have to give some reason to presuppose there is a God pulling the strings.

    Science is a really difficult business. Delving into the makeup of the universe demands fantastic collaborative efforts and amazing equipment to investigate the greater cosmos and the makeup of atoms, as Coel no doubt will attest. Do you really think a bunch of theists day dreaming about an imagined God can tell us anything whatsoever useful about reality? It’s totally crazy. Whenever a theists wants to tell us about the limitations of science he should note that the limitations of discovery apply even more so to some dude sat in an armchair introspectively contemplating the nature of God that was imagined by some ancient tribes that had very little access to the science we have now. If contemplative prayer worked at all it would have been put to practical use. There is nothing ever predicted from religion that has come close to what science has discovered. Scientific fact is heck of a lot stranger than any theistic fiction.

    So, oarubio’s, “a rational combination of God and evolution” has to start with a rational contemplation of God. Why do you even think there is a God? What could possibly persuade you? Where does your belief begin? I get that once you believe you might want to start affirming that belief, having ‘faith’ in it, committing yourself to it. But why start? I’d be interested to know.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Ron,

      I’d like to nit pick a little. In what way is natural selection ‘directed’? Directed towards what?

      Selection of mutations is directed towards an individual being better at surviving/procreating, and thus there is direction towards an individual being a better fit to its ecological niche. This makes natural selection very different from a random process, and is the mechanism producing complex adaptation.

      But I do agree with you that there is no direction towards particular species, and that random processes such as meteorite strikes can be highly influential in determining what species evolve.

  7. Ron Murphy

    Hi Coel,

    In what way is the ‘random’ occurrence of a meteorite any less ‘random’ that a particular mutation just happening to coincide with an environment which lets it survive? And remember here that for DNA the ‘environment’ consists of everything around the mutation in the cell at the time of the mutation, whether the change will be repaired or not, whether the change will propagate into the next generation, whether the change is consistent with events in the environment outside the organism. Put this into perspective with all the chance events that make these organisms meet with prey or predator that might influence survival – and not forgetting that prey and predators have random changes going on inside them too.

    Here’s another condition. Fur coat colour can vary. Let’s start with brown animals in a desert environment. Light coats occur in some statistical variation, but any statistically significant persistence of a tendency to very light coats is selected against. The environment begins to change to a wintery one and the lighter coats become advantageous and eventually persist so that white coats become the norm. It’s the coincidental coming together of a particular variety and the environment that causes selection at that point. It is coincidental and not directed.

    It is coincidental that a mutation results in a benefit, that will contribute to survival, or a detriment, that will inhibit survival. It is the sheer number of mutations that are happening all the time that make some of them coincidentally beneficial changes that are likely to increase survival chances in the current environment. It is selection, but coincidental selection and not directed.

    The only sense in which the term ‘directed’ would be meaningful in this context is if the mutation was intended to match the current environment in some way, in order to ensure survival, or extinction. Or if the selection process was guided to favour outcomes that lead somewhere, to some target species. Given that Intelligent Design proponents are claiming this very ‘directedness’ I think it an inappropriate word that doesn’t convey the coincidental nature of natural selection.

    The term ‘selection’, in ‘natural selection’ has to be understood in an entirely passive and coincidental sense, in opposition to artificial selection in animals, whereby humans are also observing the physiological outcomes of many mutations and deciding which to keep. In this latter sense artificial selection is ‘directed’ by the purposeful elimination of unwanted mutational changes. In natural selection whether a change is beneficial or not is pure luck, because the same change could be beneficial in some circumstances and not in others, according to the chance coincidental occurrence of organism change and environmental state.

    If you ‘randomly’ fire a cue ball at a ‘randomly’ placed set of snooker balls on a table, some may well end up in pockets. There is a trivial sense in which we could say that the conditions on the table, the paths of the balls, ‘directed’ some balls into pockets; and yet we would still put the pocketing down to luck, chance, because in this example the relationship between un-directed, un-planned ball position, ball collisions, ball tracks, is to us epistemologically indeterminate. We are happy to attribute deterministic laws, models, to the individual collisions, but overall the outcome of which balls end up in which pockets is not directed by anything other than the unfolding of physical interactions.

    This is the sense in which I think you are using the term ‘directed’ with regard to natural selection; but the micro scale deterministic events of molecular activity that causes the mutation, and those that act at a larger scale on the mutation, to copy it or not, and up higher to whether billions of other factors allow the organism to reproduce that may have no direct and immediate relationship to what changes the mutation might cause – all this is an accumulation of chance outcomes, or chaotic outcomes from micro scale deterministic events, a massive collection of independent events.

    Evolution is the coming together of snooker balls, randomly, at all levels, and it’s the constraints of the laws of physical interaction, which determines chemical interaction, which determines biology, which determines behaviour, which determines interaction with the environment, including other behavioural systems, …

    It may appear directed to us because of the hidden quantity of mutations of different sorts can result in a species apparently tracking changes in the environment. We see, in the unfolding changes in a species, only the ‘successful’ changes – or, those changes that we deem to be successful by virtue of their current presence in the genome. The attribution of success is a label imposed after the outcome of the undirected events have occurred.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Ron,

      First, we may be talking slightly at cross-purposes in using two somewhat different words. I didn’t call natural selection “directed” in the OP, I called it “directional”. I agree with you that “directed” (with connotations of a goal) is not an appropriate word to use about natural selection. However, I still maintain that “directional” (with connotations simply of having a direction) is indeed appropriate — and indeed that being directional is a necessary part of the process, necessary to produce adaptation.

      Mutations are entirely random; then there is selection of the mutations. That selection is not random, but is biased in a particular direction, namely towards a better fit to the local environment. As you say:

      Fur coat colour can vary. Let’s start with brown animals in a desert environment. Light coats occur in some statistical variation, but any statistically significant persistence of a tendency to very light coats is selected against. The environment begins to change to a wintery one and the lighter coats become advantageous and eventually persist so that white coats become the norm.

      The selection — at all times — is towards a better fit to the local environment, towards adaptation. The selection of the mutations causes the coat-colour to track the environment (whatever the environment does).

      That is surely a directional process. Suppose we define the “fitness function” of “coat-environment difference” as zero when the coat and environment have the same colour and shade, and increasingly positive as they differ. If we plot the population of genes against that function then the “natural selection” would produce a direction, namely “downhill” (towards zero) of that function. You would never get *selection* for uphill (though changes in environment could cause the function to increase).

      You are entirely right that all this is merely “the unfolding of physical interactions”, in the same way that water running downhill is also just the unfolding of physical interactions, but is also directional (though not directed!).

      That’s the sense in which I’m using the terms “direction” and “directional” (though not the term “directed”), and surely that’s the engine that leads to adaptation.

  8. Edward Jones

    Beyond, over against, all the nit-picking details, selection: random v/s directed, an historical incongruity the secular critic must take into account:
    The world’s greatest physicists, the founders and grand theorists of modern quantum and relativity physics: Einstein, Schreodinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Brogue, Jeans, and Plank wrote extensively about their mystical convictions – all confirmed theists, while making the claim: The great difference between the old and the new physics: both were dealing with shadows and symbols, but the new physics was forced to be aware of the fact — forced to be aware that it was dealing with shadows and symbols – not Reality. Still in Plato’s cave looking at the shadows on the wall discovering no clue that the sole cause of the shadows was the fire outside.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      You are welcome to present evidence that those physicists were all theists, believing in a personal god. For that matter you are welcome to provide evidence that modern physics is “forced to be aware of the fact” that it is not dealing with “reality” but only with “shadows”.

    2. Gary Hill

      Of the physicists you mention only Eddington (a Quaker) and perhaps Heisenberg (Lutheran) could be considered ‘confirmed theists’.
      According to Schrodinger’s biographer Walter Moore, he was atheist with an interest in eastern philosophy and had definitely no belief in a personal God. Pauli very publicly denounced his Catholicism in 1929 and never resumed any religious activity. De Broglie was widely considered to be areligious. J. L. Heilbron, Planck’s biographer states that he was a deist. According to Jan Faye, Bohr’s biographer, he was atheist. James Jeans believed in some vague concept of a ‘great architect’.

      As for Einstein:

      “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this”. (1954).

      “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.” (1954).

      In any case having mystical convictions does not make one a theist by any stretch of the imagination. It’s also interesting that all the physicists you mentioned are now dead and did their work between 50-100 years ago. We know far more about the universe now (this includes reality). I wonder how many of their modern equivalents, armed with this expanded knowledge, consider themselves to be ‘confirmed theists’. Very few I’m sure.

  9. Erich

    “Some think that God is an imaginary being that people believe on faith to make them feel good. However, it also takes faith to be an atheist. An atheist must believe that DNA is the result of chance. The DNA molecule is like a very complicated computer program.

    Nobody would believe that Windows 7 is the result of chance, but many believe that the human brain that created Windows 7 is the result of chance.

    Below is a picture of Mount Rushmore. Four faces were carved out of solid rock. It was caused by a process of time and chance. Over the course of many years, wind, rain and blowing sand carved the faces in the rock:

    That sounds ridiculous to claim that erosion carved the faces into the rock, right? But, many people believe that the men who are depicted in the rock carving and the people who carved the rock are a result of a process of time and chance. I myself believed it for many years. A living thing is much more complex that a rock. It should sound just as ridiculous to say that life began by a process of time and chance.”

    [Very long comment, including extensive Bible verses, reduced to the above — moderator]

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I reduced the above comment since it was hugely long. To reply:

      It does not require “faith” to suppose that DNA arose by chance, since there is lots of evidence for it. If you see complexity and design, the educated and wise person says “there, that is the product of natural selection”.

      Darwinian natural selection is the only mechanism we know of for producing very complex outcomes — either directly, as complex lifeforms, or as designs produced by the lifeforms that evolution produces.

      Thus people and all lifeforms and (indirectly) Windows 7 and Mt Rushmore are all products of evolution by natural selection. That is what the evidence overwhelmingly tells us.

  10. Gary Hill

    “An atheist must believe that DNA is the result of chance. The DNA molecule is like a very complicated computer program.”

    Your view of biology is highly erroneous.

    First, DNA is not the simplest form of self-replicating molecule. It has evolved from simpler biochemical forms. That’s why it appears to be so complex.

    Second, the analogy of genomes to computer programs is strained, to say the least. Program code provides the entirety of the information necessary for software to run. Any input from sources external to the program can only be dealt with in a specific manner that is already written into the program’s code. The source code is deliberately designed to be not malleable. If this were not so, your version of Windows 7 might start out the same as everyone else’s but would, over time, evolve into a different kind of operating system according to the demands that you place on it. It might eventually no longer be compatible with other versions of Windows 7. Furthermore, Windows 7 does not ship with the bulk of its code redundant, simply left there by programmers from previous versions of Windows. The size of a program’s source code should correlate with what can be achieved with the program – simple programs require simple coding and vice-versa.

    DNA is clearly the opposite, it is highly malleable; additional information is available to it to which it responds and so develops novelty (from e.g., ontogeny, random mutation, biogeographical factors, genetic drift, and a host of other environmental influences). Natural organisms ‘ship’ with large portions of their genome redundant, littered with the remnant DNA and pseudogenes from ancestor species. And the size of the genome bears no resemblance to the complexity of the ‘program’. The marbled lungfish, for example, has a genome 40x larger than human beings.

    DNA has created Windows 7, as Coel pointed out; they are not analogous.

    Reply
    1. Ron Murphy

      Analogues don’t have to be the same in every respect. Often an analogy will contain both aspects that are similar and those that are specifically different. The difference may be the uninteresting aspect which is only incidental, or, it may be important to the function of the analogy.

      So, God v FSM – the similarity is that they are human invented concepts about deities that can be shown to exist by the same methodology, but with zero evidence, and they can both be believed in, or have the potential to be believed in. There difference is only when and how they were invented and the amount of history and tradition. To an atheist this is supposed to imply that if the FSM is ridiculous then so might God, since they are similar in supportive evidence. This, and the teapot and fairy analogies are usually lost on theists.

      The DNA v program analogy helps to illustrate that the human is programmed in some way. It also helps show that if the analogy holds then the human is as mechanistic as a programmed computer. This might also be lost on theists, since rather than focus on the blind watchmaker programming by evolution they might prefer that both computer programs and DNA were designed by a designer.

      Sometimes analogies work for you but not for the person you are trying to persuade.

      But analogies need not be used to persuade in an argumentative sense (they are not arguments so don’t stand as arguments – something else often lost on theists using them) but may be mere aids to understanding.

      The DNA v program analogy is fine in this respect. Programs are not complete usually. First, programs are themselves data. A compiler compiling source code, an interpreter interpreting source or intermediate code, or a hard-wire processor running macine (native) code, are all examples of one program running another. Further, programs ate often broken into parts: main program plus DLL files, under windows; and a single program may share DLL files, or may used multiple versions. Operating systems co-ordinate many programs to acieve a programmed task. HTML is data, but it encodes a program of presentation which many browsers can run.

      Many chunks of code may be pieced together to program computers in different ways – so a single piece of HTML might look very diffetent on a desktop and phone – much like a gene might be expressed differently in two different animals.

      There are many ways in which the analogy works. The trick is to take from it what the user/author intended and not to impose one’s own selection of the diffetences. Of course some analogies do fail to make a point and it is fair to criticise them when they do. But some generosity is required occasionally.

  11. Gary Hill

    Ron, your précis of the FSM analogy demonstrates why Erich’s analogy is so bad.

    “analogies need not be used to persuade in an argumentative sense………..The DNA v program analogy is fine in this respect”

    Agree. And I acknowledge your point about taking what the author intended and not imposing one’s own selection of the differences. But Erich’s intention was to liken DNA to a computer program in order to infer a designer for both. The analogy doesn’t work IMO precisely because the similarities (in this regard) are so few.

    “Operating systems co-ordinate many programs to achieve a programmed task………..much like a gene might be expressed differently in two different animals”.

    Completely disagree. A gene (or a group of genes) is not an operating system running a predetermined program, or programmed tasks, nor is it a blueprint. It’s a means of replicating and expanding genetic information in the absence of any overriding program.

    “Of course some analogies do fail to make a point and it is fair to criticise them when they do.”

    If Erich had made an analogy between computer programs and DNA being means of disseminating information, I might well have agreed with him, but his analogy as it stands is strained. So I criticised.

    Reply
    1. Erich

      WOW!

      You guys are off the chain! This is like an insanely intense arm-wrestling match of genius minds! Aahaha!

      I feel like a little kid who jumped into a fight of highly skilled ninjas, threw one punch, and now the entire fight has turned towards me. Ninja Ron Murphy takes pity on this wannabe-warrior and knows that he too was once a passionate young man trying to find his feet in the world of Ninjitsu and tries to soften the blows. He appreciates Ninjitsu for what it is and likes to see the heart in any warrior, whether extremely skilled or not so much… Ninja Gary Hill is offended by this young shmuck and wants to annihilate him and his silly and wild right-hook off the face of the planet. All the while Ninja Coel is relentlessly droning forward like a robot-ninja that has only one prime directive: Advance Evolution at any and all costs and coldly deny anything to the contrary!

      Anyone care to comment on that analogy? 🙂

      I wish you guys could have read my entire post, though. That DNA stuff was actually just something I came across on the net. I just threw it in cos it made sense to my uneducated (compared to you guys) mind. Can I maybe mail my entire post to you guys individually? You could leave me you e-mail addresses if you like? Is that allowed Ninja Coel?

      Have a great day guys!

  12. Gary Hill

    Erich, re the Ninja analogy, I can see how you might think that. From my perspective, however, I suspect you’re mistaking reasoned argumentation and passionate debate (common in secular circles) for animosity. I apologise if my passion for the subject appeared aggressive to you.

    I’ll give your full email a read: seicolegwr (at) btinternet (dot) com

    Reply
  13. GEORGE JOHN

    A scientific law should be able to encapsulate past experience and be able to predict. Newton’s laws can explain the motion of planets in the past as well as predict future eclipses. Quantum theory does this on the basis of probablistic models. The evolutionary theory gives an explanation as to the past but cannot predict the future … in this sense it does not become a full scientific theory but in the realm of a “narrative”. Narratives give a form to the past without being able to predict the future.
    In this context, mathematically, chance refers to a set of events following a probability distribution.
    Non random events are those which cannot be compressed to an algorithm shorter than the list of outcome events (see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a detailed and interesting discussion on these terms).

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I don’t accept that there is a requirement for a scientific law or theory to be able to predict, it merely needs to be an explanatory framework that (as far as we know) is true. For pragmatic reasons to do with complex and chaotic systems, and to do with historical contingency, in some areas of science it is very hard to make accurate predictions. Forecasting next year’s weather is an example.

  14. GEORGE JOHN

    Addendum:
    The foundations of science is based on experimental proof. This is based on testable hypothesis. However, if a theory cannot predict, it cannot be experimentally proven (by using a null hypothesis) – and any such reasoning is therefore devoid of experimental evidence which is the bedrock of science. Within this constraint, genetics is a science while evolutionary theory is not.
    This is not to state that truth is obtained only though science…there are truths which are known through other modes. Geometrical proofs lead to truth but are not experimentally derived – geometry is not classified as science.
    If we change the meaning of words used in a discussion, we are in the same boat as Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    Concepts may then become like hot air balloons which we conveniently use for credibility in order to cross the banks of the sea of our ignorance but they would be concepts without content – like balloons they will contain nothing when pricked.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi George,

      The foundations of science is based on experimental proof.

      I think that it is too narrow a view of science to require experimental proof. Many areas of science are not experimental but observational, either because the timescales are too long (e.g. geology) or because the subject matter is too far away or too big to experiment on (e.g. astrophysics). Science is pragmatic, and is about doing the best one can. If one can do experiments then good, but if one can’t then that doesn’t mean it is not science. As I see it, evolution is indeed scientific and is a fully fledged scientific theory.

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