Squashed

A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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I could prove God statistically; take the human body alone; the chance that all the functions of the individual would just happen, is a statistical monstrosity.

George Gallup (via onemoretimewithfeeling and a lot of other people)

The quote is a fairly typical argument by design (or teleological proof) for the existence of God.  It’s also called the watchmaker argument—and essentially says that if you were walking on the beach and a watch washed up on shore you would asssume from its complexity that a somebody had made the watch.  If we have a designed world, shouldn’t we believe in a designer?  The problem is that if you had never seen anything like a watch, you might be able to comprehend that it was more intelligently designed than the piece of coral next to it.  On the other hand, if you were created in the image of a watchmaker, perhaps you would be able to recognize a larger, more complex watch.  Or perhaps you would assume everything was a larger watch because your world was infused with essence of watch.  But I’m not really interested arguing metaphysics with myself at the moment.  I want to talk about Scott’s objection to this quote.

Scotth objects:

Of course, all human functions just “happening” would be statistically unlikely. But the human body did not just “happen.” Things work together, as a system. They depend on each other. One thing developed to help another, or because of another. This is what evolution is.

Plus, prove to me the universe is not infinite or monstrously large. Even if the odds are against us, if the sample is large enough it will likely happen.

Let’s talk about math.  Scott assumes that an infinite number of tiny opportunities for complex life would lead to a 100% chance that there will be complex life.  Suppose I tile an infinite flat plane in some kind of repeating pattern.  Ten percent of that pattern is made of red tiles.  I drop a ball from some incredible height.  What are the chances that the ball will land on a red tile?  Now, there are an infinite number of red tiles for it to land on.  Still, the probability that the ball will come to rest on a red tile is still 10%.

Now, Scott could immediately object that I am contrasting two sizes of infinite, but he is contrasting a finite possibility with an infinite number of chances.  He asks to prove that the universe is finite or not monstrously large.  Now, if anything is monstrously large, the universe is—so I won’t argue with that one.  I also can’t prove the universe is finite.  (If you think you’ve done this, look down at your chest, see whether there’s a Nobel medal hanging out there.  If there isn’t, or if there is and it’s for peacekeeping or literature or osmething like that, you probably haven’t done it.)  I can tell you, however, that the idea of an infinite volume universe doesn’t have a lot of traction amongst people who do this sort of thing.  (The class that discussed this was called hyperbolic 3-manifolds and was too cool to have a textbook—so I won’t get too rigorous on this one.)  The general idea is that perhaps the Universe isn’t the  boring, zero-curvature Euclidean space we conceptualize.  In fact, of all possible geometries, ending up with a flat, infinite space seems rather improbable.  Imagine, for example, that the universe were to loop back on itself.  If you went a billion or a trillion or whatever light-years in the same direction you would end up where you began.  Or possibly you would end up where you began but upside down.  Does it seem too weird?  Now imagine an infinite universe that keeps going and going.  It makes the finite universe sound positively friendly, doesn’t it?  But suffice it to say that the universe most-likely isn’t infinite, so we’re comparing a small probability of random development with a large number of probable planets.  Even if you take the planets with the right set of molecules and forces for complex molecules to form, we still have a large number of them.

But Scott is right in the first part of his objection.  Evolution offers mechanisms by which things as complex as the human body could form.  The whole point is that the development of complexity was not random.  Beyond natural selection, there seem to be mechanisms to spur rapid mutations in times of partial extinction or rapid climate shift.  Richard Dawkins once famously called the universe itself “a blind watchmaker.”  Stephen M. Barr, a physicist, insightfully responds, “If it is, it is miracle enough for anyone; for it is incomparably greater to design a watchmaker than a watch.  We need not pit evolution against design, if we recognize that evolution is part of God’s design.”

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