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The force of probability arguments

Published: 29 March 2015 (GMT+10)
cartoon-life-in-lab

Bruce A. of Australia, a supporter, raised a question about the probability arguments in our interview with chemist Dr Ken Funk, Is God Left-Handed? The basic gist is, even if the probability is tiny, doesn’t it mean that there is still a practical chance of it happening?

100% behind and supportive of Creation.com but want to make a point that the ‘odds of life’ comments to me don’t seem relevant at all, as an argument in support of creation. You give here odds are 10185—a fantastic number but this may, according to chance been hit on the first throw of dice or twice on the 10370 throw. It means the same if it was hit, it was hit which it has been, it exists. Is this valid? I don’t accept life came from anywhere other than our Creators hand.
Bruce A., Australia

CMI's  responds: 

Dear Mr A.,

You seem to be misunderstanding the force of probability arguments. These are in fact used all the time in other areas to detect design. The foundational reason is that all physical processes are fundamentally reversible. For example, if a working car was torn apart by a tornado to form a junk heap, you could write mathematical equations for all the parts flying away from each other. Running these equations in reverse would mean the parts of the junkyard all flying together to produce a working car—and because of reversibility, these equations would be just as valid. But we see only the former process, never the latter, although the equations are just as good. The reason is that there are astronomically many more ways of making a junk heap than a working car. So although there is a tiny chance, as per your reasoning, of a tornado through a junk heap forming a working car, it is too infinitesimally small to be considered a rational possibility. No, probabilities this tiny show that the car just didn’t arise this way; rather, it arose from intelligent design.

Or think of it this way: we film a car being torn apart: running the film in reverse will show the car forming. We can tell that it is time-reversed precisely because of the tiny probability of that being true. Indeed, we can define time, by saying that the forward direction is in the direction of increasing probability. This becomes circular, because we have two sets of equations of motion in time that are equally valid, and we just eliminate the one set as being contrary to the direction of time.

Indeed, when analysing thermodynamics on a statistical level, Ludwig Boltzmann (1844–1906) formulated it as: the universe tends towards a maximum entropy, which corresponds to moving to a system with more possible states, thus a higher probability of being occupied. It is also why you’ll never see a bath of lukewarm water spontaneously freezing at one end and boiling at the other. Rather, when you mix an equal amount of freezing water and boiling water, the result will always be lukewarm water. Yet there is an infinitesimally small chance of all molecular collisions removing heat energy from one end of a bath of lukewarm water, and transferring it to another. But if you saw this happening, you would assume there was an outside source heating and cooling the water at different ends. This is explained more in the book World Winding Down (a layman’s guide to the Second Law of Thermodynamics).

cartoon-bath

The chances of life from non-living chemicals is even smaller, so the rationality is even stronger. First, we all agree that it’s clearly possible for a living cell to decompose into non-living chemicals, including lots of hydrolysis and racemization reactions. But every one of those reactions is reversible. Therefore it is logically possible for the entire reversal to happen: non-living chemicals to a cell, just highly improbable. The reason that the former reaction happens is basically that there are astronomically many more ways that a cell can break down than to form.

Or, take the parallel in the article: if someone illegally used your bank card and entered the right PIN, your bank would presume that it was either stolen or left lying around. They would never argue that the crook solved it by chance, even though there is a non-zero probability.

So as you can see, the force of probability arguments is essential to understand not only chemical evolution, but all other processes that we take for granted.

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