Tag Archives: Chance

Ideas Have Consequences

The Desperate Man (self-portrait), by Gustave Courbet, 1845

Last week, we looked at some of the visible results of living out the Christian life, and how these are typically recognized as good things, despite the protests of atheists that “religion poisons everything”.  That was on a more pragmatic level of observable results. Today, though, I’d like to dig a little deeper into some philosophical foundations and how they work themselves out in practice.

How we see ourselves has real results in our lives. Being the product of random chemical reactions and natural selection will have different implications for how we live our lives compared to our being the result of deliberate creation by a loving Father. For example:

  • It will affect how you see others. Are you merely the result of a lot of unguided, directionless biological mutations added to a mixing bowl (Earth) that is itself only the blind chance result of a cosmic accident? This has led many over the years into the throes of apathy, depression, and nihilism, but worse than the self-destructive belief in a purposeless life devoid of any “big-picture” meaning, is the idea that those you meet are actually competitors in a brutal game of “survival of the fittest.” Yet in the atheistic worldview, that is the supreme law of the land; we are simply advanced animals who survived the “struggle for existence” by hook or by crook. After all, it’s “survival of the fittest”, not “survival of the kindest” or “survival of the most ethical”. Acts of benevolence often reduce one’s own odds of survival. Or… just maybe, are all the people you meet – friends and strangers alike – actually fellow creatures with eternal destinies, made in the image of God, valuable to Him, and loved by Him? Are they, as the Bible maintains, broken and flawed – but redeemable! – people that God so loved that He sent His only Son Jesus to give Himself as the sacrifice for their salvation? Do you think that last view would lead to more love, more compassion, more service for others? Could there be any other result for someone who understands the implications?
  • It will affect how you look at the environment. If we are cosmic accidents who have risen to the top by a ruthless struggle for existence, then why should anyone be environmentalists? Caring for weak and defenseless animals, and especially endangered animals, is to operate contrary to natural selection. The weak aren’t supposed to survive under natural selection. On the other hand, if our natural world is a stewardship entrusted to humanity to rule over well, then there is good reason to use it conscientiously, without abusing it. A biblical view seems to be that the environment is worthy of care as something God created a) “good” [Ge 1:25], and b) subservient to human needs [Ge 1:26], but not something more important than humans as some environmentalists proclaim. This leads to a more balanced approach to environmental care than what I’ve seen from much of the environmental movement.
  • It will affect how you look at the actual living of life. If this life is all you have (around 80 years on average in the US, around 120 at the upper limit), and there is nothing after death, then you need to get everything you want in now, while you still can. And you probably shouldn’t let anyone get in the way of you enjoying your brief moment of life. After all, a car accident, a heart attack, or a hundred other tragedies might befall you tomorrow and end your existence like a bug getting stepped on.  So “Carpe diem” and all that. Of course, that’s some bad luck if you’re the victim of a childhood disease, or a violent robbery, or some other untimely fatal event that takes you in what should be the prime of life. After all, even if the deadly disease is later cured, or the killer caught, it doesn’t do you much good, does it? Is life simply an unfair roll of the dice, where the scoundrel lives to a ripe old age enjoying the finest delicacies, while innocent children die every day from starvation, longing for a few grains of rice? Even the cynic that says “Life sucks and then you die – get over it” should be able to see that there are many things in life outside of our control that we instinctively recoil from as being not the way it ought to be. Why is that? Where do we get this notion of “ought”? We can’t ground it a secular worldview. Now, lest anyone think I’m a Christian simply from wishful thinking, I’m not saying that sense of “how things ought to be” justifies Christianity. Rather, I’m saying that Christianity justifies that innate sense we have. The Bible explains why we feel like that. What if your existence continues on beyond the death of your physical body? The Bible tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts [Ec 3:11], so it’s no surprise then that we feel like there’s more than this physical life. What if justice will be served after all, even if not in this life? The Bible tells us that there will be a final judgment, from which there is no escaping [Heb 9:27, Rev 20:12]. What if you were made for a bigger purpose? People sometimes get all they ever wanted in life, and yet are miserable. That’s because we were made to glorify God. As Augustine so aptly put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” But when we’ve found our rest in God, our life here on Earth – whether short or long, easy or hard, fair or unfair – takes on an eternal perspective that changes everything.

Can the atheist live differently from how I’ve described above? Of course, but I think he has to do it in contradiction to his underlying philosophy, just as a hateful, racist Christian would be undercutting his own philosophical foundations with his thoughts and actions. Our ideas have consequences – some pretty dramatic and obvious, while others only reveal themselves fully over many years or even generations. I urge you then, to examine the philosophy you are building your life on, and look for the logical consequences of it. Is it pointing you toward your Creator or away from Him? Choose wisely.

The Cellular Lottery

DiceI’m in Honduras this week, where I gave a presentation on evidence for intelligent design in the genetic code. Some of my presentation was based on past blogs on design (here) and DNA (here). But now I’d like to show you a different part of the presentation dealing with the nature of “chance” as this seems to come up a lot in discussions of the origin of life. Enjoy!

First off, what is chance? It has been defined as “the absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood, or controlled”.[1] Chance can’t actually cause anything. It’s simply the explanation left after physical-chemical laws and design have been ruled out; it is the so-called “null” hypothesis that there were no discernible patterns pointing to necessity or design. So let’s look at this way of describing the tendencies of events we don’t understand, can’t control, or can’t predict with certainty.

Chance events will have certain odds associated with them. For instance, in a lottery, the odds of winning might be 1 in 100 million. So what are the odds of DNA developing by chance? better or worse than a lottery? How do we determine what the worst case odds possibly are? Let’s start with a basic example. Supposing you rolled 2 dice once every second for a minute, hoping to get a pair of sixes. You have a 1 in 36 chance of getting that pair of sixes on each roll, and 60 chances to get that particular result each minute. Your odds of winning are still only 1 in 36 each roll, but you’ve made a win relatively likely by increasing what’s called your probabilistic resources, the number of rolls of the dice.  So with the resources of 60 rolls, you will generally see 1 pair of sixes result. If you were able to roll 100 pairs of dice at the same time, you would have 6,000 chances each minute of play. Thus you would have sufficient resources to witness something more unusual, like 2 pairs of sixes (1 in 1,296 odds), but probably not something like 10 pairs (1 in 60 million odds). To assign some event to chance rather than design, we need to compare the odds of it happening to the resources available.

One way we can eliminate chance is by looking at the Universal Probability Bound. That is a way to determine statistically whether something is possible through random processes by conservatively estimating the maximum probabilistic resources of the entire universe as an upper limit. For instance, this has been used by security analysts to determine whether computer codes can be broken by brute force attacks. The universal probability bound does this by looking at the fastest possible “dice roll” with the most possible “dice” for the longest possible time.

  • The shortest possible time for any change in physical state is called the Planck time, which is roughly 10^-45 seconds. This means we’re rolling the dice 10^45 times per second instead of once per second like the first example.
  • Scientists estimate the total number of elementary particles in the universe to be 10^80 particles. In this scenario, we’ve made every particle in the universe a dice so that you can’t physically have more chances to win in play at one time.
  • There are various estimates of the age of the universe, but if we take the oldest estimate of 14 billion years we get 4.4×10^17 seconds. If we conservatively round up (a lot!), we can use 10^25 seconds to make the numbers even. This actually works out to 316 quadrillion years, so I think we’ve safely covered the idea of having all the time in the universe to roll the dice.

Multiplying these 3 together gives us a very conservative estimate of the maximum resources of the entire universe for causing a random event. Therefore, if the odds of any event are less than 1:10^150, it’s just not reasonable to say it happened by random chance.
What do these extraordinary odds look like? This: 1 chance in … ž1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!
This is our standard for saying that we have eliminated chance as a possible cause. When we find that many biological and cosmological systems in our universe didn’t have to be the way they are, but have odds of occurring by random process less than that, we have to assume intervention of some kind. But just how bad are the odds for random formation of the first reproducing cell?
First, 20 protein-forming amino acids must form (1) peptide bonds (2) using only L-isomers in (3) stable, functional, 3D folded structures to form proteins. Many proteins are then required to form one cell. That cell must be complex enough to be able to reproduce before evolution could even begin. This happening by random hookups in a “prebiotic soup” is an uphill battle to say the least.
The odds of the chance formation of a single minimally functional protein composed of only 150 amino acids is roughly 1 in 10^164. This is 100 trillion less likely than that outrageously long number above. And that’s only for a short 150-acid protein. They’re typically composed of several hundred to several thousand amino acids. The odds of chance formation of 1 minimally complex cell of only 250 proteins is roughly 1 in 10^41,000. Again, this would be far less than what we typically see. The smallest self-replicating cell in the wild is 482 proteins, and scientists were able to knock out 100 of its proteins to arrive at a 382 protein cell that could still replicate (although with much other normal functionality removed). This is still 132 proteins more than the generously low number of 250 we’re assuming for a threshold.[2]
The Bible tells us that “His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”[3]  Similarly, David wrote in the Psalms that “the heavens declare the glory of God.”[4] It seems that, as our ability to observe nature has increased, so too has its declaration of God’s glory. Now we find that it’s not just the starry night sky that speaks to us of God’s creative power. Every one of the roughly 50 trillion cells in our bodies screams at us that they are not the result of chance, but of incredible design beyond human abilities. Will we listen, or will we continue buying atheistic lottery tickets?

[1] “Chance“, Dictionary.com, definition #1.
[2] Much more detailed explanation of these numbers, how they were calculated, and the theory behind them can be found in Stephen Myer’s book, Signature in the Cell, 2009, particularly chapters 8-10.
[3] Romans 1:20, ESV.
[4] Psalm 19:1, ESV.