4.27.2006

Improbable versus Impossible: Is ID an argument from incredulity?

In a previous post, I presented a logical, factual argument for the existence of God. But one of my readers, Seanny McShawn, took issue with my syllogisms, saying that I was simply making an argument “from incredulity”. When someone tries to win an argument based on simple probabilities, this is called an “argument from incredulity.” This is a logical fallacy. In other words, the sheer unlikeliness of a scenario does not preclude its possibility and cannot be proof against it. But was I arguing from “incredulity”? Physicists estimate that in our universe there are 1080 particles. Mathematicians say that the mathematical level of absolute impossibility is 1 chance in 1050. However, the physical level of absolute impossibility is 1 chance in 1080, and here’s why: On the basic level, probability is defined by the ‘particle’ example: finding a specially marked particle among 500,000 particles is beating odds of 1 in 500,000. In a universe that has 1080 individual particles, the most improbable scenario is finding a specially marked particle in the entire universe. Due to the size of our universe, it is impossible to have a more improbable set of odds than 1 chance in 1080. Anything that is more improbable than the most improbable is by all standards absolutely impossible. Mr. McShawn also took issue with the famous atheist Sir Fred Hoyle’s calculations that the probability of producing life by chance is 1 in 1040,000. So, last night I ran a set of calculations that should clear up the problem. I found that Sir Hoyle’s calculations were, in fact, incorrect. Life is composed of proteins. Proteins are highly organized arrangements of amino acids. The Miller-Urey experiments showed that under certain finely tuned circumstances, amino acids can be produced. These amino acids were in the wrong balance to support life, but the experiment did show that intricate design is not absolutely necessary to create them. So let us assume, for the sake of argument, that in the primordial ooze billions of years ago enough amino acids were produced in the right concentration to provide the building blocks of life. Let us further posit that, through some volcanic or hydrologic freezing cycle, natural bond energies arranged themselves in such a way as to intricately fold millions of amino acids into the perfect proteins necessary for the next prebiotic step. Let us further assume that these proteins, through lowest energy bond formations, aligned themselves in such a way as to form a double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. At the same time, an equal amount of RNA was produced to help copy the DNA in the absence of ribosomes. Nature magazine has done several extensive studies to investigate the absolutely simplest reproducing life form. According to this article, the simplest bacteria would require only a few basic functions: the ability to ingest raw materials, convert them into amino acids, synthesize the acids into proteins, and arrange the proteins to make a cell wall, more DNA, and more protein building cell mechanisms. To have these functions, Nature estimates that at minimum 200 genes would be required. According to Wikipedia, the average bacterial gene has around 1000 base pairs, for a total of 200,000 “bits” of information necessary to sustain life. Each “bit” has four possibilities: A, T, G, and C. These are the four proteins which comprise the “rungs” on the ladder of the DNA double helix. With 4 possible values for each of the 200,000 base pairs, the odds of getting the first base pair correct is 1 in 4. The odds of getting the first two base pairs correct is 1 in 4 x 4, or 1 in 16. The odds of getting 200,000 base pairs in the correct order are as follows: 1 chance in 1.0 x 10120,412 Remember that it is physically impossible, in this universe, for random chance processes to defeat any odd greater than 1 in 1080. Such being the case, the verdict for DNA arranging itself in a manner favorable to life is 101505 times the level of absolute physical impossibility. And the odds are not that much better if we reduce the gene requirement to only one gene. The chance of randomly selecting a single gene correctly is 1 in 6.5 x 101113. Even if all the genes had already been written somehow, the chance of getting them in the correct order (the only order in which reproduction is possible) is 1 in 1.6 x 10460. This is not an argument from incredulity. This is an argument from facts: cold, hard facts. Since any set of odds above 1 in 1080 is absolutely impossible, random chance could not and did not produce life. Speaking of which, try listening to this song by Mike Reese. I am sure you will enjoy it. If you cannot play the clip from this page, you can try clicking here. Any questions? In Him, David S. MacMillan III

13 comments:

Seanny McShawn said...

Well, this whole process is very Dembskian in flavour. Admittedly, the argument is not an argument from incredulity, even though I suspect that it has its roots there. My apologies, I misinterpreted.

So, for the moment I'm going to proceed on the assumption that the math was done properly, and that all the facts as you've presented them are also accurately represented.

If "any set of odds above 1 in 1080 is absolutely impossible," and "random chance could not and did not produce life", what is your argument? That the current model doesn't explain the data? Not quite, you've answered this right in the title: "Improbable versus Impossible: Is ID an argument from incredulity?"

You're telling us, therefore, that because the possibility of life emerging in the fashion you've laid out by pure chance is statistically impossible, that it must have been designed. Yet, this is not indicated at all. If you were correct in your calculations, and there is no way that life could have evolved from pure chance, you still have not proven design. After all, is nature actually limited to producing only random combinations? What if only parts of the process were random? What if... well, there are so many "what ifs" that concluding ID as the victor here is an argument from ignorance.

Even if you had neatly disproven every single possibility postulated so far regarding these matters, ID would not be the logical conclusion. That is merely a god-of-the-gaps argument, and doesn't hold any water.

Alyssa said...

Seanny, if random chance is wrong, then what else is there but design?

Your alternative, "what if only parts of the process were random" is invalid, because if only parts of the process were random, then what do you call the other not-random parts? Ordered? Ordered, would mean ordered by something.
Things don't arrange themselves, do they?

If someone took you to a building, and you asked how it was made, and they told you, "the builders just brought a pile of bricks and materials here, and set it there, and there was an explosion, and there it is. It formed into what you see." Wouldn't you tell them they were a fool? I certainly would. Buildings don't build themselves, or spring from explosions.

Parts of the process can't be random. It's illogical. There can't be a random process. It's either a process, or it's not.

David S. MacMillan III said...

Seanny,

Commenter Alyssa made a very good point. Let me restate it. You said:

You're telling us, therefore, that because the possibility of life emerging in the fashion you've laid out by pure chance is statistically impossible, that it must have been designed.

Not exactly. I love your wording: "possibility of life emerging in the fashion you've laid out" ... can you think of an easier way?

I didn't really lay out a "fashion" in which life could have arisen. Really, I just assumed that random chance created amino acids, they turned into proteins, and formed themselves into DNA. You are implying that I "set up" a scenario to amplify the odds. Can you think of an easier way with easier odds?

If ... there is no way that life could have evolved from pure chance, you still have not proven design.

More fancy wording. "Pure" chance.

After all, is nature actually limited to producing only random combinations? What if only parts of the process were random?

That is what I had in my example! The DNA arrangement of the proteins resulted from simple bond energy alignment and temperature. In fact, I made sure that the only random process was the arrangement of the DNA ... and the chances of even one gene forming correctly by chance is 1 in 10^1113.

Even if you had neatly disproven every single possibility postulated so far regarding these matters, ID would not be the logical conclusion. That is merely a god-of-the-gaps argument, and doesn't hold any water.

A god-of-the-gaps argument argues that if science "doesn't" explain a phenomenon, it must be supernatural. But that is not my argument. I am simply pointing to a logical fact: SINCE science "can't" explain the origin of life, life must have originated through super-natural (non-natural/greater-than-natural) means. "Doesn't" and "can't" are very different. Science has not pinned down the origin of gravity. But that doesn't mean that they will not figure it out one day! But I just proved that science cannot ever explain the origin of even a single gene!

Seanny, I want to ask you a question. You already know my opinion on this one.

What do you think happens to someone when they die? I just proved that the supernatural exists and that some supernatural entity is responsible for life. What if there is an afterlife?

What is your view, Seanny? 150,000 people will die in the next 24 hours. Considering that the supernatural does exist, perhaps you should think about the remote possibility that you have to answer for every lie you have ever told and every dirty thought you have ever had.

If I put a microchip in your brain that recorded your thoughts for a week, then played it before your family, you would not look very good. For that matter, none of us would! If the God that created life is the God of the Bible, He knows every thought that you think and will require you to give an account for every word, thought, and action! Would you be innocent or guilty? Ignoring the possibility is a chance no one should be willing to take.

So the ball is squarely in your court. What are you going to do with it?

Seanny McShawn said...

Sorry David, all you've stated is that you believe the current scientific model for the origins of life does not work.

Of course, I don't believe that your idea of what the current scientific model is is quite accurate.

Since I am no mathematician, and I'm pretty confident that you acquired this interesting idea from pre-existing ID research, I Googled the matter and came up with a pretty good response to your "insurmountable odds":

"The calculation of odds assumes that the protein molecule formed by chance. However, biochemistry is not chance, making the calculated odds meaningless. Biochemistry produces complex products, and the products themselves interact in complex ways. For example, complex organic molecules are observed to form in the conditions that exist in space, and it is possible that they played a role in the formation of the first life (Spotts 2001)."

And that's just one point out of several that the folks over at talk.origins seem to have concerning the matter. Quite an impressive set of archives they have there. It almost looks like they've predicted just about every argument you've presented to argue the subject. It also seems that the actual biologists would disagree quite strongly with your proof "that science cannot ever explain the origin of even a single gene". But then, it's your proof. Check these out: Probability of Abiogenesis & Origin of the first cells

Since I, as a musician, have no way of doing the research, I'll let them do it for me. Are they mistaken?

What do you think happens to someone when they die?
I have absolutely no idea.

I just proved that the supernatural exists and that some supernatural entity is responsible for life.

No, you haven't. (See above)

What if there is an afterlife?

Well, that depends largely on whose afterlife it winds up being, doesn't it? The rest sort of answers itself... if it's a fundamentalist Christian god, then I've been a terrible terrible person for not accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour and I'll burn in Hell for eternity. If it's a nicer, more liberal Christian god, then I'll ascend to the Pearly Gates with the rest of the nice folk and enjoy my time in Heaven. I'm sure there are equivalent comparisons of right and left-wing interpretations of the Quran and the Torah and all the other holy texts out there. So, being that I don't know which god would exist if a god existed... well... we won't get much of anywhere with that question. If your god does exist, then I've made a big mistake, and I'll answer for all the misdeeds he wasn't clear enough to properly inform me about. And believe me, if he really wanted me to know about Him, and know Him, and love Him and all that jazz, I imagine he'd be able to sort that one out pretty easily.

150,000 people will die in the next 24 hours.

So? I don't understand what purpose this remark serves other than to suggest that 150,000 people will presumably die in the next 24 hours. Is this supposed to remind me of my own mortality?

I'll throw the ball back into your court now. What if there is no god? What if, after spending a life proselytizing and attempting to debunk scientific research, all in the cause of earning yourself a better life when you pass from this one, you simply die and rot like every other living thing on the planet? What if, in your final moments, on the cusp of passing away, you realize that there is no light at the end of the tunnel... that there is, in fact, no tunnel at all? That your entire life has been spent in service to a lie? Not that I think this question serves much more of a purpose than does your own...

Seanny McShawn said...

Alyssa,

I only mentioned a partly random system as an alternative. I know little of the processes from which life originated. But I would assume that the ordered parts would be ordered by the self-replicating protein/molecule/whatever itself and thus would still not require a designer. Still, this may reveal some sort of scientific ignorance of my own, I don't know.

On the other hand, I do know that your exploding-brick-and-mortar story is just another tired re-hash of Fred Hoyle's "tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747" analogy. It has been shown to be lacking repeatedly. Scientists have demonstrated that order can and does arise from disorder.

David S. MacMillan III said...

Hey Seanny,

First, let's clarify something. I am not declaring that "the current scientific model for the origin of life does not work." That is obvious enough.

Rather, I am declaring that "no scientific model for the origin of life can work." Big difference.

So let's take a look at the quote you gave me.

"The calculation of odds assumes that the protein molecule formed by chance."

If you had read my article closely, you would notice that I am not talking about the protein molecule. In fact, I assumed that the protein molecule happened by chance or by some lucky prebiotic hydrological cycle. My calculations even assumed that DNA formed easily, but that the only thing lacking was the order of the molecules in the DNA.

"However, biochemistry is not chance, making the calculated odds meaningless. Biochemistry produces complex products, and the products themselves interact in complex ways."

Note the word "produces". Biochemistry is the chemistry of life. However, before life exists there can be no biochemistry! Regardless of this consideration, the production of complex products was assumed to have happened in one way or another. The only odds I was looking at are the information involved.

"For example, complex organic molecules are observed to form in the conditions that exist in space, and it is possible that they played a role in the formation of the first life (Spotts 2001)."

Uh-huh. I think I mentioned the Miller-Urey experiments? Just because amino acids form in carefully tuned circumstances - or even if DNA formed perfectly - doesn't mean that the DNA can form with the correct order to produce any life.

I checked out the two links you gave me. The "Probability of Abiogenesis" page was talking about calculations concerning the formation of proteins. In my example I assumed proteins already existed for the sake of argument. So that entire page is a moot point.

The "Origin of the first cells page was longer and more to-the-point - but not very much.

I find that when we present the evolutionary crowd with impossible odds, rather than correcting our mistakes and producing their own explanatory calculations they tend to set up strawmen and shoot them down. It would be more informative if they were to address our actual argument and recalculate the odds, factoring in our perceived "errors".

The following is from that page:

Nobody knows what the most primitive cells looked like. All the cells around today are the product of billions of years of evolution. The earliest self-replicator was likely very much simpler than anything alive today. . . .

You are exactly right. That is why Nature magazine calculated the absolute minimum of information necessary for self-replication and ingestion of outside materials. This number (200 genes) was factored into my calculations (which you would have known had you read my article closely). And even if it was only 1 gene, you still have 1000 base pairs with 4 possible combinations each - odds of 4^1000 or 1 in 10 to the 604th power - physically impossible.

According to the talk.origins page, the "current front-runner" in the origins-of-life debate is as follows:

Emerging hypercycles: This proposes a gradual origin of the first life, roughly in the following stages:

(1) a primordial soup of simple organic compounds.
(2) nucleoproteins, somewhat like modern tRNA (de Duve 1995a) or peptide nucleic acid (Nelson et al. 2000), and semicatalytic;
(3) hypercycles, or pockets of primitive biochemical pathways that include some approximate self-replication;
(4) cellular hypercycles, in which more complex hypercycles are enclosed in a primitive membrane;
(5) first simple cell.


The first 2 steps were assumed to have taken place already in my calculations. Steps 3-4, however, require some explanation.

According to the Google definition, "hypercycles" are a group of self-reproducing proteins: protein A attracts and aligns molecules to form protein B, protein B similarly begets protein C, and protein C begets protein A. This is how I assumed DNA was originally formed in my example.

But moving from a hypercycle protein encased in a "cell wall" to the simplest life form as defined by Nature is another matter. Life does not reproduce by hypercycle. Life reproduces using complex cellular mechanisms that follow the instructions of DNA. Unless the DNA is correct, copying cannot occur.

It all comes down to information. A protein hypercycle requires no information. But life requires a set of carefully written instructions in order to function.

Have I debunked enough or is there more you want to throw at me?

--------------

If your god does exist, then I've made a big mistake, and I'll answer for all the misdeeds he wasn't clear enough to properly inform me about. And believe me, if he really wanted me to know about Him, and know Him, and love Him and all that jazz, I imagine he'd be able to sort that one out pretty easily.

Seanny, I have to say that your statement appears to be incredibly arrogant. The Bible says that people like you are willfully ignoring God's message to you. Did it ever occur to you that just maybe God is using me to "inform" you right now?

In the past I have spoken with agnostics who have a genuine desire to see whether or not God exists. Such persons are to be commended for their curiosity and open-mindedness.

But you have already decided in your heart that there cannot be a God. And the Bible says: "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.' " Seanny, your utter closed-mindedness towards God is foolish. Foolish and then some.

God's law is written on your heart. Why do you think that it is wrong to steal? to kill? to lie? to commit adultery? Each of these actions would be smiled on by society if evolution was true, because each of these actions increases the chances of you passing on your genes.

Look as close as your hand. Blood pumps through the veins and arteries as your nervous system triggers intricate muscle movements that allow you to control your mouse. Each square millimeter is covered in nerve endings that allow you to identify just about anything with your eyes closed. If you cannot tell the this was designed by a perfect God, than you have deceived yourself and are wilfully ignoring God's attempts to get through to you - which you just said "weren't clear enough to properly inform you about". If you miss that, it is your own fault and you are truly without excuse.

I am praying for you, Seanny. You have a brilliant mind and I don't want you to spend eternity in Hell! Put aside your preconceived hatred toward God and allow Him to speak to you. I am really worried for you, man.

In Him,

David S. MacMillan III

Seanny McShawn said...

In my conversation here, I think I have made a grave error.

That mistake? Attempting to debate matters of statistics and biology in a field where I have no experience and very little knowledge. I realize that this is so because I can little more identify the potential truth of the side I suspect possesses better answers than I can of your own. You throw numbers and assertions of fact at me and all I can do at this point is throw up my hands and say "I have no idea, then." I can't tell if what you are saying is true (or even tell if you know what you're talking about) since I don't have the expertise to refute or acknowledge it. As such, I have to withdraw from this portion of the argument because the only explanations that can be provided for a debate such as this are arguments that I cannot, at this point, properly evaluate. My apologies.

The Bible says that people like you are willfully ignoring God's message to you. Did it ever occur to you that just maybe God is using me to "inform" you right now?

No. Why not? Because I can imagine a number of other explanations for the situation that would more accurately account for your trying to convince me of your god's existence. Why would your god need to work in such understated nebulous ways? If he is omnipotent, kind, and just, wouldn't it be in his power and his interest to make it absolutely, unquestionably clear that he exists? Since he has not done this, as evidenced by most of the world not being able to agree on what/who god is, or even whether he exists or not, I find my statement more practical than arrogant. I am also quite interested to see if any god exists, yours included, but I don't see why I should be required to believe in him before I see the evidence. That seems a little intellectually irresponsible.

But you have already decided in your heart that there cannot be a God.

Let's not talk about hearts here, it's just a fluffy romantic term that has no bearing on the conversation. I have looked for a god and found the evidence wanting in my eyes, yes, but I have not ruled one out.

God's law is written on your heart. Why do you think that it is wrong to steal? to kill? to lie? to commit adultery? Each of these actions would be smiled on by society if evolution was true, because each of these actions increases the chances of you passing on your genes.

That's a very unreasonable prediction. Gradual evolution of social norms, derived from the required behaviour for two individuals to co-exist peacefully, can easily account for matters of general distaste towards stealing, killing and lying. They are not absolute wrongs, even if they are largely frowned upon.

Look as close as your hand. Blood pumps through the veins and arteries as your nervous system triggers intricate muscle movements that allow you to control your mouse. Each square millimeter is covered in nerve endings that allow you to identify just about anything with your eyes closed. If you cannot tell the this was designed by a perfect God, than you have deceived yourself and are wilfully ignoring God's attempts to get through to you - which you just said "weren't clear enough to properly inform you about". If you miss that, it is your own fault and you are truly without excuse.

Now, just because I don't fully understand the statistical and biological arguments made above, and just because you believe that you've refuted these scientists points, doesn't mean I'm suddenly going to swallow more fallacy. And this time it is an argument from incredulity. You've just turned around and begun telling me that complexity implies design again. You have no call to criticize me for not caving to such flimsy rationalizations since you're well versed enough in logic to be able to know better than to make them. Please stop.

Seriously, if the only honest arguments you can make are the ones that are too technical for me to properly evaluate, there's not much point to doing this.

Put aside your preconceived hatred toward God and allow Him to speak to you.

Why does everyone assume that I hate God? This is really very confusing. Why does questioning the existence of something imply hatred towards it? I don't hate Sasquatch, or the Admiral in the Royal English Navy who may or may not have been a relative of mine, and I don't know if they exist either. Really, I appreciate the concern and all, but I'll be fine.

David Ketter said...

Seanny,

In response to your question, "what if there is no god?" the Apostle Paul has quite an answer,

"then we are to be pitied above all people on the face of the earth."

Seanny McShawn said...

Why should we be pitied more than anyone else in such a case? If everyone that believed a god existed turned out to be mistaken, why would one denomination warrant more pity than the rest? If the definitive knowledge were to arise that there were no god, wouldn't it be cause to celebrate such a triumph of research? To find, at last, an incontrovertible answer to this question that has dogged us since we first knew how to ask it? Seems to me that it would be more appropriate to pity the current world, since there is absolutely no clear concensus on what's really happening in the cosmos.

David Ketter said...

The Apostle answered that question too...

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Seanny McShawn said...

But if we determine that the resurrection did not happen, does that not mean that we have learned more about our god/universe? We don't mourn our past belief that the Earth was flat, we celebrate our discovery that it is a sphere. We don't mourn our past belief that bleeding a patient drained off impurities of the blood, we celebrate our discovery of antibiotics that succesfully stave off infection. Why then should we mourn a hypothetically erroneous belief in the resurrection, if through disproving it we have learned something new and extremely valuable about the universe?

One argument posed by the apostle was that "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." But if Christ has not been raised, the implication is that our knowledge of God or the universe is lacking, and those things that we have come to understand as true as a result are not. So, the universe might not, then, work in terms of sin and grace. After all, if the portion of the Bible that deals with the resurrection is false, would that not throw the other portions more heavily into question as well?

Anonymous said...

Alyssa asked:
"Seanny, if random chance is wrong, then what else is there but design? "

I'm not Seanny, but I'm a cell biologist, and the answer is obvious: modern evolutionary theory (MET).

You see, the Big Lie being pushed here by David is that MET is simply random chance, when in reality, only a part (mutation) is. The mutations occur on a nonrandom, existing base, and natural selection is anything but random. IOW, we start from something nonrandom, random mutations occur, and nonrandom selection is applied to those variants. Only an ignoramus or a huckster (or both!) would try and portray this as simple random chance.

Blatantly misrepresenting one's opponent's argument in this way is a form of bearing false witness. Isn't there a Commandment against that?

What sort of Christian would break a Commandment in a debate about Biblical literalism, when according to the Bible, Jesus Christ Himself chided his Disciples for taking his metaphors literally?

BC said...

Couple of comments:

Your post is being critiqued over at good math:
http://goodmath.blogspot.com/2006/05/repeat-after-me-improbable-is-not.html
http://goodmath.blogspot.com/2006/05/improbable-is-not-impossible-redux.html

The theory of the origin of life is an optional part of evolutionary theory. Even if you were to succeed in disproving naturalistic abiogenesis, you've not even touched evolutionary theory (in case that's what you're aiming for).

Your use of numbers are deeply flawed (for reasons Mark and other posters have described on the goodmath website). If you want people to trust your numbers, you have to be even handed rather than using the questionable numbers that promote your viewpoint.