Monday, 9 February 2009

Nothing Inevitable

There is nothing inevitable about evolution. It does not have to arrive at where we are; nor would it have arrived at, necessarily, reptiles sat at computer screens blogging to each other, without the catastrophe of 65 million years ago. It could have been just sets of animals roaming around for ever more, living and dying and that's it.

One can make an analogy with a very large pack of cards that, each time they are thoroughly shuffled and laid out, produce a pattern. There is the pattern, and here we are, and we can look back from that pattern. But there is a percentage of producing that pattern, and that remains what it is: it is quite wrong to say because there is "potential" to have our laid out order that this will come about. This is despite the existence of the pack of cards, what might be the equivalent of carbon based life.

The joke is to leave monkeys for long enough and they'll type Shakespeare. This is actually false, in that each time the monkey sits at the typewriter is a new session of the same probability.

Another way of looking at it is having a 14 million to one chance of winning the UK Lottery. It is wrong to say wait long enough (several lifetimes) with one attempt each time and eventually you will win. No, because each time is memory-free, and each time is the same probability.

The objection to this is that evolution is a process, and does not start from the same place each time. It builds. So it builds towards a potential. But that's only like saying the odds reduce each time, but in the game of evolution we don't know by how much or what are the permitted variations. There is no inevitability of a humanoid outcome, treated very broadly.

We do know that some developments were so advantageous that they spread throughout species, and one is the eye, that developed stage by stage but has one DNA origin. We also have environmental advantage constraints so that a mammal getting into and evolving in the water gets to look somewhat like a large fish.

All that is so, but producing the humanoid is this precision language producing and storing being. Well, where is the candidate for that? Washo was an important ape in that he learnt some hand based symbols for some basic communication. He didn't get to Descartes but he did communicate such that the keepers realised that he expressed forms of longing with them that meant he would have to be in their care until he died. Dolphins might be doing the same to some extent and could extend. The dog that mutates to say "sausages" and mean items manufactured and sizzling in a pan is going to be a breeder's delight. It would certainly help to get the sheep rounded up, and of course how there is genetic engineering. If we can grab the jellyfish genes for glowing in the dark we might be able to collect in the sheep at night.

Darwinism as a system - and it becomes a system - is chaotic in the sense that weather is a chaotic system. You cannot predict where it will go. However, you can predict climate, and so it does depend on where you have got with the process and what the constraints are that exist. What sort of life forms could exist, for example, on a world with one sixth gravity that we have. Perhaps the Bouncy would he a really good animal, where a sac at its base means it can bounce around and jump out of harm's way. I can imagine it: maybe rounded or fatter at the bottom, maybe narrowing to its head: let's hope something like eyes evolved and perhaps it has ribbed handles on top for a symbiotic relationship with another creature that bounces around on it and could provide its arms.

The point I'm getting at here is that the system is contingent and transient. catastrophes can wipe out all life, or so much of it that what's left has little mutations that go a long way. High stress, low resources, contained, environments lead to rapid change. In all these cases the transience of death over life is the engine of change.

It is against this that I, for one, must modify my religious beliefs. There can be nothing eternal in this system, such as the eternity of the Word for example, and even first born (Arian) it has a hefty problem. The process is entirely local and specific and contingent, so there is no intervention. So the guiding principle is nothing eternal and everything transient.

Therefore there is incompatibility between the Darwinian system and the Christian system, unless the Christian system is understood as human generated myth for its own creative purposes. Having religion may well be beneficial, of course, in terms of exchanging between members of a tribe and binding them together. But that's fine, that's what conscious of being conscious people do: and they project outwards. They create Gods. The Muslims have done this, the Christians have done this and the Jews have done this. The Hindus have. It seems to me that only the Buddhists have grappled with the meaning of transience, though others have within religions, and some Buddhists have lost the plot with their add-ons.

There are forms of objectivity in Buddhism useful to the Westerner, though the Westerner is bound to become more story based, more subjective that leads to the postmodern, more fantastical with their transient understood inventive religious forms and much of this contrasts with the Westerner's inherited understandings of objectivity. Westerners have almost to refashion their religious inheritances towards these qualities of change, towards the subjective and towards the postmodern.

There are all sorts of possibilities: what clashes with the Darwinian bases of understanding is the eternal supernatural claim that is a psuedo-science of its own, and yet whilst ought to be falsifiable presents itself as out of reach. Young earths, virgin births, resurrections, are all pseudo-scientific statements, all of which ought to be open to testing, and none of which are. The arts and religious imagination are not open to testing and yet are meaningful, so here is where religion resides. The eternal is simply defeated by the contingency of everything and by the chance of everything, that, from the position before the cards are laid out, the best we have is extreme probability, but from the position after the cards have been laid out, humans are likely to be highly creative and very self-deceptive.


Peter S said...

Your probabilistic statements don't seem clear to me. If I play the lottery 1000 times and the odds against me are 1000 to 1, it's true that I don't win with certainty. But the "expected value"--the number of times I should expect to win, is nearly 1. Yes, the marginal probability doesn't change--that's what's meant by independent random events--but the cumulative effect is significant. I'm not arguing against your central points here, just quibbling about the wording.

Erika Baker said...

I really don't understand you anymore.
Christianity is no more and no less intellectually credible than it was when you still subscribed to it.

Why this constant attempt at making those of us who have no problem to hold science and faith together look intellectually shallow, as if we hadn't quite thought it through?

I really wish people who become atheist don't have to do it by telling those who aren't that the only intelligent position is the purely scientific one.

God's existence cannot be proven.
God's non-existence cannot be proven.
It is possible to have an intelligent view for either position.

But please please stop pretending that you can decide whether God is real or whether Christians create him, that the eternal is being defeated by rigorous scientific thought etc.

It's becoming insulting.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Peter S. Is this so? Is it not 1000/1 every go? I'm trying to make a distinction between approaching each event and looking afterwards. For example, if a person throws 6 twenty times in a row from a dice, this is compatible with a dice that is not loaded. Very unusual. The chance of throwing a six the next go is just one in six as before.

Erika, I'm simply looking at whether Darwinian thought is compatible with a fixed eternal God. I don't think so. Perhaps you don't like the finding, that is only my reasoning. I happened to listen to the lecture highlighted on The Times by Keith Ward on God and agreed with much of it, in which he justifies belief in God, though I think he makes a few rather crucially contestable points, such that I need to check whether he contradicts himself from stating a position early on which he then argues against later. But it is rather good.

The scientific position is a means to theology, but just one. I've argued for compatibility not exclusivity.

I'm sorry that you find plain argument insulting. I would have thought there was a difference between my presentation and that say of Orombi and Venables who were labelling others as not Christian.

My position is similar to a year ago, but is more like my position ten years ago. I really have not moved a lot.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Adrian, I'm not insulted in the least. What I see you doing is recording your thinking process as you wend your way through - well, I'm at a loss for words to describe what you're wending your way through - a crisis of faith, a loss of faith, or maybe neither.

My position is similar to a year ago, but is more like my position ten years ago. I really have not moved a lot.

The thing is that now your position seems to make you uneasy within the church. You can't participate in the same manner as formerly.

Erika, I don't quite understand why you're insulted.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I think Erika is insulted because elsewhere she has blogged that she is hanging on to the Church as an institution with great difficulty, and she'd like people like me, who she would be closer to in thought, to uphold her more intact theological thoughts rather than have to argue here too.

Plus I think she is allowing Mad Priest to rub off on her in his splash abouts against the fundiatheists, as he calls them, as well as the loopier members of Christianity who'd really exclude the likes of Erika and to whom Rowan Williams seems all too happy to bend.

As I write this I am note taking from Keith Ward's lecture, about which I am sure she would approve and I do in all its tone and approach - but I think he is making a clash between what he rejects and what he wants.

The point is all you have to do is argue against any position I hold. I don't mind that and if you have the better argument I'll change my mind. Same with Keith Ward, as he makes more possible a theist position not less.

Erika Baker said...

Adrian and Mimi
If I misunderstood the general tenor of Adrian's posts, here and on TA over recent months, I apologise.

My impression is that Adrian keeps trying to use logic and science to "prove" why there is no supernatural God. The implication I read into some of the more dismissive ways of writing is that there is one logical position to hold, and that those of us who do believe in a supernatural God or in "myth" as pointing to something real and external, are... well, by implicaition a bit thick. Because if it's logic that can assertain all those things, then it's only illogical people who don't get it.

But I may be misunderstanding. In which case, as I said, I apologise.

Grandmère Mimi said...

As I see it, I must face all questions about my faith, from within myself and from outside, without fear. Never be afraid of the questions.

Peter S said...

I don't mean to belabor the point, it's just in how you say some things. Probabilities add: the probability of rolling a six in one try is 1/6, the probability of rolling a single six in two tries is 2/6. Here's your statement:

Another way of looking at it is having a 14 million to one chance of winning the UK Lottery. It is wrong to say wait long enough (several lifetimes) with one attempt each time and eventually you will win. No, because each time is memory-free, and each time is the same probability.

But you're talking about one win among many, many tries--that's where the probability adds up. As I say, this is a really minor point...

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No, that's not correct. It's 2/12. In fact each throw is independent (memory free). There is no obligation on further throws to make up the deficit of previous throws.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I do not hold this position. I hold a position in which there are signals of transcendence which may, but probably do not, lead to transcendence.

If there is a general transcendence then it is relatively inactive as regards what we do and how we do it, but it may affect in some sort of parallel sense to the quantum world.

So I pursue different arguments which lead in one or another direction. There are some prevailing arguments, e.g. evolution and a divine plan (in some sense) that I want to tackle, and thus they tend to be of a critical negative kind.

What's different is that I have stopped trying to equate particularly Christian views to the general religious humanist position that I hold, though there are still parallels. I'm still largely non-realist regarding religion but it feeds from other language games of other disciplines which give the appearance of more realism.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Erika, I don't hear Adrian saying that his is the final answer. It's his answer right now, and if you want to change his mind, you'll have to make a persuasive argument to get him to do that.

Peter, Adrian is right on this one. You start from scratch with each throw.

It's the same probability principle shown in the once-in-100-years rainfalls which flooded us out three times in two years. Once we have a once-in-100-years rainfall, we're obviously not protected for the next 100 years.

Erika Baker said...

thank you.

I don't at all want Adrian to change his mind. Everyone has their own faith journey and I deeply respect that. All I can ever do is put my own point of view, or talk about my own experience, but never with a view to persuading anyone that I am "right". No-one can make me "believe" anything that does not make intellectual sense while also resonating deep in my soul, and I certainly understand why Adrian cannot just "believe" something that doesn't make deep sense for him.

What I sensed, and what I did not like, was a kind of dismissal of other people's faith as illogical and not terribly intelligent. It's at that point that I would find a continued conversation difficult, because it would no longer be based on everyone's respect for the other's position.

But that's only a theoretical point now, as Adrian has clearly explained that this is not how he feels. I've clearly been too sensitive.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Erika, I'm sorry. I didn't mean "you" in a personal sense. I should have said "someone" or used another word.

Adrian, you approach faith in a different way than I do. I can't conceive of myself making a persuasive argument for the faith. I can only talk about my faith, how it works for me, what it means to me, and what it does for me, and if that seems attractive to another, they may want to give it a try. That's the extent of my proselytizing. However, I don't mean to say that my way is better than another person's way.

Peter S said...

(sigh) Ask a real statistician, please! I'm not arguing about the marginal probability. Adrian's statement is about cumulative probability, that's what his words said. I can accept that he wrote what he did not intend. What he wrote read, to me like "if you play the lottery many, many times, the probability that you will have won once during all that time is the same as the probability of winning once on a single try". That just is not mathematically correct. Look, I'm not an idiot. In writing about probability it's critical to write carefully and to distinguish between marginal and cumulative probability. This is a mistake that creationists use to try to get people to believe that complex organic molecules could not have formed by chance.
Sorry, I'm just annoyed to have been misunderstood by people I generally respect!

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I wrote this:

It is wrong to say wait long enough (several lifetimes) with one attempt each time and eventually you will win. No, because each time is memory-free, and each time is the same probability.

It is clear to avoid the gambler's fallacy, that at some point the right order must come up.

Every single go at the lottery is a new go. Every go is independent. There is no obligation on that go to make up any deficit of number orders in previous goes. This is why the odds stay the same throughout.

Looking back at lottery goes is like looking at dead meat.

Now there is one valid reason why you might keep a list of past goes. That is to see if the random number generator method is actually not random, that it has an unknown bias: how the balls go in, how they go around, how they come out...

But evidence of patterns in the past is still compatible with a purely random system, and does not offer an explanation.

But there is no history of lottery wins. The lottery starts afresh every single time.

Peter. We gamble before knowing the outcome. That's why the probability remains the same. Looking ahead and ahead it remains the same probability.

Or with dice, again: twenty throws of six in a row does not lessen the chance of throwing a six next time, assuming random dice.

Peter S said...


I'm not disputing that the probability on a single trial is the same. Your original statement was about people expecting to have won at least once among many tries, not about the probability of winning on any single try. You might have intended the latter, but you wrote the former.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

This really does need thrashing out!

Even stretched into the future, the probability remains the same. The probability that you win on the lottery remains at its 14 million to 1 all the way into the infinite future. Why - because each go is a separate event.

All the way into the infinite future the likelihood of monkeys writing a Shakespeare play remains the same.

If this is tough to understand, it's probably because people put the infinite into one lump, rather than having infinite sets.

The difference is that people think that because the past tends to show difference, so should the future. The future shows only probability.

But if the past shows imbalance, then the future is unconnected. You threw 10 sixes in the past. What are the chances of throwing a six next time? One sixth.

Of ten sixes in the future - now you are making an accumulated bet, and the probability is one sixth multiplied by one sixth etc. - but the next throw is a sixth...

Now betting on winning the lottery twice in a row is 14 million to 1 multiplied by 14 million to one, or 196 million to 1. But you don't do that, do you? You do one at a time.

What are the chances of the balls next time being exactly the same as the balls last time? 14 million to 1.

The monkeys sit down each time at the typewriter and (if there is a calculatable probability) it remains the same - there is no inevitability that Shakespeare will be produced by waiting long enough.