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Feedback archive Feedback 2010

Monkeying with probability

Published: 15 May 2010(GMT+10)
Old typewriter

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Russell Grigg’s article Could monkeys type the 23rd Psalm? evoked some interesting comments, both positive and negative. We present a selection below, along with comments from our editors.

Tom W. of the UK thought that we had misunderstood the meaning of the term “eternity”. He wrote:

Haven’t quite got the idea of ‘eternity’ here, have you? It means infinite, for ever. No matter how unlikely an event is, given enough time/chances, the probability of that event occurring approaches one.

Russell Grigg and Dr Jonathan Sarfati reply:

Thank you for your comment on the article.

Haven’t quite got the idea of ‘eternity’ here, have you? It means infinite, for ever.

The term “eternity” does indeed mean “infinite, for ever”, which is the very reason why it cannot apply to our universe, because of the concept of heat death. This is when the universe will have run down to a state of no thermodynamic free energy to sustain motion or life, as a result of the operation of the second law of thermodynamics. Other terms for it are maximum entropy or maximum disorganization or maximum randomness, which is not a condition which promotes chemical reactions, let alone produces life.

Not only could monkeys not have typed the 23rd Psalm within our universe, but evolution could not have occurred within our universe either.

For the monkeys to type something, they have to be somewhere, i.e. within our universe. Likewise, if evolution has occurred, it has to have occurred somewhere, again within our universe. If either process, i.e. typing or evolving, needs infinite time in order to come to consummation, then because of the concept of heat death, not only could monkeys not have typed the 23rd Psalm within our universe, but evolution could not have occurred within our universe either.

No matter how unlikely an event is, given enough time/chances, the probability of that event occurring approaches one.

You are saying in effect, “Given infinite time, everything will happen.” But something that is logically impossible does not become possible, just because you have more time.

Something that is logically impossible does not become possible, just because you have more time.

This is really special pleading, i.e. an explanation atheists accept for the huge improbabilities of chemical evolution, but would not tolerate for a second to explain anything else. Consider if we found a pattern of markings on a beach which spelled your name. Naturally you would conclude that an intelligence had written it. Who would think that wind and wave erosion somehow produced that pattern by chance, even though there is an extremely tiny probability of this happening.

So if a person had an a priori bias that no one could have written your name, he could argue that there has just been an infinite amount of time so that this improbable erosion pattern arose naturally. If this sounds totally unreasonable, then by the same logic, so is the atheistic preference for time and chance to produce life from chemicals, over a Creator.

Also, the article undermines the “infinite time” argument, since the chemical reactions are reversible. That is, because both forward and reverse reactions occur, the longer time periods mean more chance to reach equilibrium, which is far away from life.

In our second letter selected for presenting this week re Russell’s article, Jordan K. of USA brought up the subject of natural selection:

Interesting article, but what about selection?
Sure, you can state in the article that selection doesn’t apply to the non-living precursors to life, but that doesn’t mean it actually does. Selection very well applies, in that certain molecules formed through “random” mixing are going to be more stable than others. As these stable molecules interact and eventually form a self-replicating molecule, it will be selected for by virtue of it’s ability to "survive". Once other self-replicating molecules form (or variations to the first class), selection will then select for stable replicators, efficient replicators, or replicators resistant to being "eaten" by other replicators. Thus, evolution starts. No appeals to magic, no ridiculous amounts of chance.

CMI’s Dr Don Batten responds:

Selection appropriate to the origin of life cannot operate at any significant level in an abiotic (i.e. lifeless) soup of chemicals (see also Natural selection cannot explain the origin of life). The scenario given is irrelevant to the origin of life because many of the most important chemicals needed for a reproducing living cell are highly unstable—cytosine and ribose, for example. They are only relatively stable in the environment of the cell, but even here they have to be recycled and remanufactured continually. Consequently, this is further evidence against naturalistic origin of life hypotheses. See Origin of life: instability of building blocks .

Our third email was from David G. of Australia, who wrote:

Your article came onto the site at just the right time. The question of the ‘chance’ of life occurring naturalistically came up in a discussion group at my church. I was able to send the link to the article to the person who served the group (not led, mind you; as the Holy Spirit leads!). I don’t think that she had come across CMI literature before, and she was appreciative.

Russell Grigg replies:

Thank you, David, for this. Our aim is to provide materials that will equip Christians to uphold and to spread the Word of God.

Russell Grigg

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