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The force of probability arguments

Published: 29 March 2015 (GMT+10)

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).


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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Readers’ comments

Hiskia M.
My small brain seems to get cracked with all of these arguments, but my common sense says that the possibility of probability under 0.1% is the most "miraculous" event if it should be happened.

On the other side, there is a book which has 100% probability that explains life, still some people choose something else to believe. Age is changing, culture is changing, knowledge is advancing, but ignorance stays the same from the beginning. Human history is always repeated. Thanks CMI
Erik W.
You can be very generous with evolutionists: give them the maximum “trials” with which to see if they can ever approach a 1/1 probability (mathematically speaking, a probability of 1 means that something actually occurs).

Obviously not every atom in the universe is able to be incorporated into cellular components (some are simply the wrong type, and there are geometric considerations), but use ‘all the atoms in the universe’ as an upper limit.

# atoms in universe: 1080 (common estimate)
# atom-atom interactions/second: 1015 (upper limit)
# seconds from alleged big bang: (13×109 years)*(365×24×60×60) = 409,968,000,000,000,000 or 4.1×1017

So, just like when you do coin-toss tests in math class in public school, and you have a 50/50 chance combined with a certain number of “trials”, you start to get diverse actual results because of “chance”.

The number of “trials” possible in this universe, by which to produce evolution, is at maximum, 10102, by the calculation above.

So if the probability of evolution is greater than 1 in 10102, evolution’s got a good chance! But if it’s less, then ‘chances are’ that it ‘doesn't have a chance.’

If the chances of assembling a cell by random are 1 in 1010,000, then the difference between the probability and the trial runs is so great that such a small number of trials could never hope to ‘actualize’ the thing governed by the probability in question.

The probabilities evolution must surmount are worse than the chance of holding one’s breath for a decade, driving a million miles on one tank of gas, jumping 30 feet straight up, or to put it in a spiritual sense: the probability of living a perfect life and earning heaven, as a fallen human being.

Some probabilities are simply impossible.
Jonathan Sarfati

I make a similar calculation in Answering another uninformed atheist: Galileo, Miller–Urey, probability, linked under Related Articles in the article.
Denese K.
This article covers a topic that I have thought about often, and I concur with Bruce A. in his statement "... a fantastic number but this may, according to chance (have) been hit on the first throw of dice ...". I have always felt that arguments of probability are weaker arguments, like those creationists should not use, simply because there is still one chance in however many possibilities stated. An example of probability given in a visual way states: "... like finding a marked dime in a football field full of dimes two feet deep". The possibility, though unlikely, exists of finding said dime. My understanding of chance infers that the 'improbable' in question does not need to go through every permutation possible before happening. It can theoretically happen any time.

I read through the rebuttal above, but have to concede that I don't understand the argument of forward vs backward calculations, or reversibility. I pray for the scales to drop from my eyes in this regard, and will re-read the article a few times to grasp it.

However, there is one concept that is glaringly obvious to me in my mental ramblings, and that is the (un)likelihood of an improbable event ever recurring. So an improbable event could occur once, but the chances of it randomly repeating (or reproducing) are so improbable as to be impossible. As a non-scientist, (wo)man-in-the-street, I find this to be more compelling reasoning. Does this concept stand up to scrutiny?

Thank you CMI for the incredible smorgasbord of resources that equip ordinary folk like me to believe God's Word with confidence from first to last.
David M.
Having just read the book by Dr Carl Wieland, World Winding Down, I can certainly recommend it for anyone to try and grasp these somewhat difficult details and concepts about the second law of thermodynamics. Thanks for the article it helps reinforce those same ideas.
Chuck J.
Thank you for making it so easily understood for me. Also, I’d like to comment that I just this morning read in the Bible that what is in a person’s heart is what comes from his mouth. It occurred to me as I read this article that all of your replies to writers reflect the love of Jesus. I just love our Lord and our brothers and sisters too when we get it right. You set a good example.
Murk P.
thank you for the once again insightful article. You have taught me much.

I think you mentioned once that probability rests on uniformity

Thus to invoke probability requires trust in the only One who sustains
and the argument (of life happening by chance etc.) fizzles because it rests on the Sovereign One
Probability presupposes fixed laws to make sense - vetoing an anything can happen universe

Further more the one who created time .history and math does not lie
Things reproduce after their kind - thus eliminating the notion that chance can father cells

Or looking at it another way if chance is behind it all there is no chance that it is not (or that God is) and off to Disneyland we go

I pray for courage , strength and wisdom for you as you speak and teach

Thank you
Paul S.
"Prefer that which is probable but impossible to that which is possible but improbable." - a half quote of Aristotle giving advice to poets. However it also works in science.

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