It has been eight years since the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, that took the lives of over 230,000 people. In his December 14, 2012 post, Today We Grieve With Those Who Grieve, Barry Arrington wisely warned against the vain enterprise of trying to “make sense of this senselessness,” and he quoted from the essay, Tsunami and Theodicy by theologian David Bentley Hart, who forthrightly asserts that we have no right to “console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.” Quite so.
Over at his Debunking Christianity blog, skeptic John Loftus has put up a post entitled, In a Godless Universe the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting is What We’d Expect Would Happen. The poor taste in Loftus’ choice of the title left me at a loss for words. It is inappropriate to use point to such an event as an argument for atheism, at a time when parents are grieving. And for my part, I do not wish to add to their pain by trying to find a “reason” for the senseless tragedy that happened in Newtown. Children are dead, and there’s nothing good about that.
Loftus’ challenge to theists is to compare the theistic hypothesis that there is a God with the atheistic hypothesis that there isn’t one, to see which one provides “the best explanation for this horrible tragedy.” As I have said, I think it’s inappropriate to discuss the recent tragedy in Newtown when people are still publicly grieving, so I won’t. What I’ll do instead is address the Problem of Evil at a general level: does the occurrence of senseless tragedies in the world render God’s existence improbable?
From my limited human perspective, it seems highly improbable that an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God would allow such a tragedy to happen. So I begin the debate at an enormous disadvantage against Loftus. Nevertheless, I believe I can still show why Loftus’ argument for atheism, based on the Problem of Evil, deserves an F-double minus.
Let’s begin by examining Loftus’ argument. Loftus makes a preliminary point of clarification at the outset:
I’m not speaking about a godless ethic, that supposedly atheists do these kinds of deeds, and/or that they have no ethical standards to condemn such terrible senseless acts. I do have an ethic and I do condemn these kinds of deeds. That’s a topic for another time so don’t derail what I’m saying with irrelevant comments. What I’m saying here is something different.
Very well, then. I propose to leave ethics out of this post, and out of respect for the families of the bereaved, who presumably include people with and without religious faith, I would ask readers to leave ethical arguments out of any comments they make on this thread.
All bold emphases in this post are mine, by the way.
Loftus’ argument rests on an appeal to probabilistic reasoning:
People are not too good at comparing hypotheses but that’s what we must do… [I]f we compare the godless hypothesis that there is no god with the God hypothesis that there is an all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity, it’s patently obvious that the best explanation for this horrible tragedy is the godless one. Now believers may think they have good reasons to accept the God hypothesis anyway, but this tragedy is not one of them to say the least. Let me briefly explain.
In a godless universe shit happens without rhyme nor reason. Life is predatory from the ground up. Creatures eat one another by trapping unsuspecting victims in unusual ways, launching surprise attacks out of the blue, and hunting in packs by overpowering prey with brute force and numbers. Sometimes a creature just goes wacko for no reason at all. Humans are not exempt. Sometimes the wiring in our brains goes haywire and we snap. We too are violent and we inherited this trait from our animal predecessors. We also show care and concern to our kith and kin but we can lash out in horrific ways at what we consider an uncaring world.
In a universe where there is an all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing God this tragedy is not what we would expect to happen…
When comparing these two hypotheses the God hypothesis fails and the godless hypothesis prevails, hands down, no question, no ifs ands or buts about it.
I’m going to grade Loftus’ argument in this post. Let me be as generous as possible: I’ll start by giving him an A as a default grade. If I find no flaws in his argument, then he’ll retain that grade. But if I find a significant flaw in Loftus’ logic, then I’ll knock his grade down by one level, from A to B and so on.
Mistake #1. Loftus’ failure to take account of prior probabilities
Loftus opens his argument by declaring: “People are not too good at comparing hypotheses.” I’ll say! Loftus provides a perfect example, when he writes: “[I]f we compare the godless hypothesis that there is no god with the God hypothesis that there is an all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity, it’s patently obvious that the best explanation for this horrible tragedy is the godless one.”
Here, Loftus makes Mistake Number One, and it’s a mistake for which he really has no excuse, as he has studied Bayesian logic. If you’re going to evaluate the probability of a hypothesis (e.g. “There is a God” or “There is no God”) given the evidence (a senseless tragedy), then there are two things you need to know. The first is the probability of the evidence, given the hypothesis (or its negative), and the gist of Loftus’ argument is that the probability of senseless tragedies is much higher if there isn’t a God than if there is one. The second thing you need to know is the prior probability that the hypothesis is true – that is, the antecedent likelihood (in the absence of evidence) that there is a God, or (alternatively) that there isn’t one. Without that number, you simply cannot compute the probability of your hypothesis, given the evidence. For failing to even mention (let alone specify) one of the key parameters required by Bayes’ Theorem, Loftus gets one level deducted from his essay grade, which goes down from an A to a B.
Mistake #2. Loftus’ illegitimate narrowing of the evidence set
Loftus compounds his error with Mistake Number Two: mis-identification of the set of evidence pertinent to the hypothesis that there is a God. In doing so, he brings his grade down from a B to a C. If you were trying to decide whether there was a God or not, you wouldn’t focus on what Loftus calls “this horrible tragedy” to the exclusion of all else; you’d examine the totality of the evidence that was relevant to your argument. The argument that Loftus is putting forward here is the Argument from Evil. If you were attempting to decide whether the existence of evil renders God’s existence unlikely, you would need to look at the totality of good and evil in the world before making up your mind. Why? Well, it might be the case that the “no-God” hypothesis explained senseless acts of violence very well, but was utterly unable to explain most of the other good or bad events in this world, while the God hypothesis explained most of the good or bad events in the world very well, but not the meaningless violence. In that case, if you decided to reject the God hypothesis on the basis that it couldn’t explain the senseless acts of violence occurring in the world, then you’d be guilty of myopically fixating on a very limited subset of the evidence, and ignoring the “big picture.”
Mistake #3. Loftus overlooks the fact that his “no-God” hypothesis explains senseless tragedies, only if physicalism is true
Loftus then makes another error, which I’ll call Mistake Number Three: he fails to distinguish between two variants of his “no-God” hypothesis, which make very different predictions regarding the likelihood of senseless tragedies occurring in our world. Remember that the “no-God” hypothesis simply denies the existence of “an all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity.” However, the “no-God” hypothesis makes no prior assumptions regarding the truth of physicalism, so we have to consider two variants: one in which physicalism is false, and the existence of spirits is permitted, and one in which physicalism is true, and the existence of spirits is not permitted.
Let’s assume that physicalism is false. In that case, the existence of spirits is a possibility that we have to take seriously. Spirits are by definition immaterial entities, so their intelligence does not “supervene upon” any underlying properties. Now suppose we ask ourselves: “What level of intelligence would we expect a spirit to have?” The only answer we can give is that all levels of intelligence are equally probable, from zero to infinity. The same logic would apply to a spirit’s power: it could be at any level, from zero to infinity. Goodness is trickier: some people (who accept a dualistic account of good and evil) might want to assign negative values to evil spirits and positive values to good ones, while other people might be inclined to argue (as St. Augustine did) that evil is a privation, and that goodness should have a floor value of zero, rather than minus infinity.
Now consider the question of how much power, goodness and intelligence a spirit would require, in order to keep the world free of senseless tragedies. Assuming that such a world is possible, I see no reason why it would take an infinite degree of power, goodness and intelligence to keep the world that way. A (very high) finite level of power, goodness and intelligence would do the trick: let’s call it N. The range of values from 0 to N is finite, whereas the range of values above N is infinite. For any given spirit, then, the odds are that it has sufficient power, goodness and intelligence to prevent senseless tragedies. Thus in a world where spirits existed, of varying levels of power, goodness and intelligence, where all levels were equally likely, one would surely expect there to be some spirit (or spirits) that was powerful enough, good enough and intelligent enough to keep the world free from senseless tragedies. A dualist could point out in reply that the most powerful and intelligent spirit in the world might happen to be evil; but even if we accept a dualistic account of evil, there’s still a 50% chance that the world’s most powerful and intelligent spirit would be good, and would therefore be inclined to prevent senseless tragedies.
At any rate, one thing is clear: if physicalism is false and the existence of spirits is possible, then we can no longer argue (as Loftus does) that senseless tragedies are unsurprising events, as a sufficiently powerful, good and intelligent spirit could easily prevent them.
Now let’s assume that there are no spirits, and that an entity’s intelligence, power and goodness all “supervene upon” underlying properties – in other words, let’s assume that some version of physicalism is true. In such a world, the existence of a being with a sufficient level of power, goodness and intelligence to keep the world free from senseless tragedies is very unlikely: such a being would need to possess a finite but nonetheless very high level of intelligence (far greater than our own), and would therefore need to be very complex on a physical level, making its existence highly improbable.
The point I’m making here is that Loftus’ argument that the occurrence of senseless tragedies is unsurprising in a godless world works only if physicalism is true. If it is false, then his conclusion doesn’t follow. In order to succeed, Loftus’ argument from evil really needs to distinguish between three possible hypotheses:
1. Physicalism is false, and an all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity exists; .
2. Physicalism is false, and no all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity exists, but spirits of varying levels of power, goodness and knowledge may exist.
3. Physicalism is true, and therefore no all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity exists, and no spirits exist either.
Nowhere in his post does Loftus provide any independent grounds for believing that physicalism is true, apart from the Argument from Evil. In any case, if it turned out that there were independent grounds for believing in the truth of physicalism, then Loftus’ Argument from Evil would be redundant, as the truth of physicalism implies the falsity of theism.
For failing to distinguish between all relevant hypotheses, and for failing to provide argumentative support for theism, Loftus sees his grade fall from a C to a D.
Since Loftus’ Argument from Evil only works if physicalism is true, I’m going to assume for the purposes of this essay that for Loftus, physical processes provide the ultimate explanation of everything that goes on in the world.
Mistake #4. Loftus’ “no-God” hypothesis fails to explain the universe in the first place
An artistic depiction of the multiverse. Image courtesy of Silver Spoon and Wikipedia.
Let’s now address Loftus’ argument. Loftus writes: “In a godless universe…” HOLD IT, right there! This is where Loftus makes Mistake Number Four. If you’re going to seriously defend the hypothesis that we live in a godless universe, then you still need to account for the mere fact that we live in a universe at all – especially when theists commonly use the fine-tuning argument as a powerful reason for believing in a Deity. Loftus hasn’t even attempted to do that in his post. He should have, because even if the argument from evil gave us good reasons for rejecting the God hypothesis, those reasons might well be “trumped” by even weightier arguments in favor of that hypothesis – in which case, belief in God would still be rational. For failing to address this obvious objection, Loftus’ essay grade drops from a D to an E.
The fine-tuning argument which Loftus overlooks is a formidable one, which can be fleshed out rigorously, in mathematical terms. Dr. Robin Collins explains why not only the universe, but the entire multiverse needs to be fine-tuned, in a widely cited essay entitled, The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe (in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, edited by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, 2009, Blackwell Publishing Ltd). One reason, which I discussed in a blog post entitled, Why a multiverse would still need to be fine-tuned, in order to make baby universes, is that the laws of the multiverse would need to be just right – i.e. fine-tuned – in order for it to even occasionally produce universes whose constants and initial conditions permit life to exist on some planets, later on.
I understand that Loftus is a big fan of Professor Victor Stenger, an American particle physicist and a noted atheist, who is also the author of the recent best-seller, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Humanity (Prometheus Books, 2011). Stenger’s latest book has been received with great acclaim by atheists: “Stenger has demolished the fine-tuning proponents,” in the words of one gushing Amazon reviewer. Unfortunately for Loftus, however, the claims made in Stenger’s book have been completely demolished in a critical review by Dr. Luke A. Barnes, a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Astronomy, ETH Zurich, Switzerland. In his review, Dr. Barnes takes great care to avoid drawing any metaphysical conclusions from the fact of fine-tuning. His main concern is simply to establish that the fine-tuning of the universe is real, contrary to the claims of Professor Stenger, who asserts that all of the alleged examples of fine-tuning in our universe can be explained without the need for a multiverse. Readers who are daunted by the technical jargon in Dr. Barnes’ online ARXIV paper, The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life (Version 1, December 21, 2011), may prefer to peruse a non-technical overview containing key excerpts from Barnes’ paper in my blog post, Is fine-tuning a fallacy? (January 5, 2012). I would like to add that Dr. Barnes has written an incisive online critique of Mike Ikeda and Bill Jeffery’s widely cited paper, The Anthropic Principle Does Not Support Supernaturalism, which is cited by Professor Stenger in his book, in order to show that even if some observation were to establish that the universe is fine-tuned, it could only count as evidence against God’s existence. Part 1 of Dr. Barnes’ reply to Ikeda and Jeffery is here; Part 2 is here.
If this were not bad enough news for Loftus, it is now reasonably certain that not only our universe, but the entire multiverse had a beginning, as well. Leading cosmologists such as Alexander Vilenkin admit this fact, as I pointed out earlier this year, in my blog post, Vilenkin’s verdict: “All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning”. So here’s my question for Loftus: if the multiverse had a beginning, then what caused it to begin? If the multiverse had a cause, then it must have been something outside any kind of space and time, and not subject to physical laws – for if it were, then it too would be part of the multiverse! And if Loftus believes that the multiverse sprang into existence without a cause, then perhaps he’d like to explain why middle-sized objects, such as rabbits in hats, pre-Cambrian fossil rabbits and Boltzmann brains, never seem to magically appear out of nothing. Or perhaps he thinks they do spring into existence, in some other universe? Pray tell, Mr. Loftus.
Mistake #5. The physicalistic version of Loftus’ “no-God” hypothesis fails to explain the emergence of life
Let us go on. Loftus writes:
In a godless universe shit happens without rhyme nor reason. Life …
Whoa, Mr. Loftus! Life? Where did that come from? Loftus knows perfectly well that atheism needs to account for the origin of life, or the argument from senseless suffering in the world won’t work. The occurrence of senseless suffering might provide a strong reason for rejecting the hypothesis that there is a God, but the difficulty of accounting for life’s origin as a result of unguided physical processes may constitute a far more powerful reason for accepting the God hypothesis, making belief in God much more rational than unbelief. For failing to address this obvious objection, Loftus’ essay grade falls from an E to an F. That’s Mistake Number Five.
How big is the problem of accounting for the origin of life? It’s a major scientific headache – and that’s putting it mildly.
(a) Why life had to have been designed: the video that tells it all
Professor John C. Walton is a Research Professor of Chemistry at St. Andrews University, and a Chartered Chemist. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Professor Walton made his views on the origin of life public in a recent talk for the Edinburgh Creation Group entitled, The Origin of Life, given on September 21, 2010, and available online here .
(NOTE: This video normally plays OK, but if you experience delays, press the PAUSE button at the bottom and wait about two minutes, until the gray bar at the bottom has finished scrolling across to the right. Then press the PLAY button to start the video. Enjoy! Alternatively, you can watch the video on this link.)
Here are the highlights of Professor Walton’s talk:
- Statistically, the chance of forming even one “useful” RNA sequence can be shown to be essentially zero in the lifetime of the earth.
- The complexity of the first self-replicating system, and the information needed to build it, imply intelligent design.
- Hope of beating the colossal odds against random formation of replicating RNA is based on ideology rather than science.
- As lab experiments on model replicators become more complex they demonstrate the need for input from intelligent mind(s).
- Acceptance of an early earth atmosphere free of oxygen atoms strains belief beyond breaking point!
- No chemically or geologically plausible routes to nucleotides or RNA strands have been developed.
- Geological field work shows no support for a “prebiotic soup.” It favors little change in the atmosphere over time. Living things have been present since the first crustal rocks.
- After over 50 years of sterile origin of life research it is time to give intelligent design a fair hearing.
As this is not intended to be a technical article, I will not go into detail here regarding the severe – some would say insoluble – problems with each of the proposed scenarios for the origin of life. Instead, I will simply draw Loftus’ attention to several scholarly articles which will, I hope, make him aware of the enormity of the problem.
(b) The origin of proteins as a result of unguided processes is vanishingly improbable
Dr. Douglas Axe of the Biologic Institute (who has published in PNAS) highlights the difficulty of obtaining functional proteins through an unguided search process, in his article, The Case Against a Darwinian Origin of Protein Folds (BioComplexity 2010(1):1-12. doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2010.1). Here’s a short excerpt:
Four decades ago, several scientists suggested that the impossibility of any evolutionary process sampling anything but a minuscule fraction of the possible protein sequences posed a problem for the evolution of new proteins. This potential problem – the sampling problem – was largely ignored, in part because those who raised it had to rely on guesswork to fill some key gaps in their understanding of proteins. The huge advances since that time call for a careful reassessment of the issue they raised. Focusing specifically on the origin of new protein folds, I argue here that the sampling problem remains. The difficulty stems from the fact that new protein functions, when analyzed at the level of new beneficial phenotypes, typically require multiple new protein folds, which in turn require long stretches of new protein sequence. Two conceivable ways for this not to pose an insurmountable barrier to Darwinian searches exist. One is that protein function might generally be largely indifferent to protein sequence. The other is that relatively simple manipulations of existing genes, such as shuffling of genetic modules, might be able to produce the necessary new folds. I argue that these ideas now stand at odds both with known principles of protein structure and with direct experimental evidence. If this is correct, the sampling problem is here to stay, and we should be looking well outside the Darwinian framework for an adequate explanation of fold origins.
(c) The origin of RNA as a result of unguided processes is no less improbable
Indeed, the odds against proteins forming by unguided natural processes are so formidable that many scientists now believe that another molecule – RNA – formed first, and that proteins were formed from RNA. But the same problem arises for RNA as for proteins: the vast majority of possible sequences are non-functional, and only a very tiny proportion of them work. In a discussion hosted by Edge in 2008, entitled, Life! What a Concept, with scientists Freeman Dyson, Craig Venter, George Church, Dimitar Sasselov and Seth Lloyd, the late Professor Robert Shapiro (1935-2011), who is not a creationist or Intelligent Design theorist, explained why he found the RNA world hypothesis so incredible:
…[S]uppose you took Scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters, containing every language on Earth, and you heap them together and you then took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there, and the letters fell into a line which contained the words “To be or not to be, that is the question,” that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule, given no feedback – and there would be no feedback, because it wouldn’t be functional until it attained a certain length and could copy itself – appearing on the Earth.
Professor Shapiro sets forth his reasons for rejecting the “RNA world” scenario at greater length in his article, A Simpler Origin for Life (Scientific American, February 12, 2007).
(d) The “pre-RNA world” scenario can’t explain life, either
In his online article, Origin of Life Theories: Metabolism-first vs. Replicator-first Hypotheses biologist (and ex-atheist) Richard Deem disposes of another proposed pathway to life – the pre-RNA world:
Because of the enormous problems associated with the spontaneous synthesis of RNA, some researchers have opted for a pre-RNA world, in which smaller molecules substitute for RNA. However, none of the proposed compounds have ever been shown to be able to catalyze their own synthesis. In addition, numerous spontaneously-produced inhibitors block pre-biotic chemistry, requiring the use of purified compounds.
(e) Metabolism-first scenarios run into even more formidable problems
In short: all “replication-first” scenarios for the origin of life encounter insuperable stumbling blocks. For that reason, some scientists have proposed an alternative “metabolism-first” scenario for the origin of life. However, the eminent origin-of-life chemist Leslie Orgel published a telling (posthumous) critique of the “metabolism-first” hypotheses of Robert Shapiro, Stuart Kauffman and others, in his article, The Implausibility of Metabolic Cycles on the Prebiotic Earth (PLOS Biology, January 2008, Volume 6(1):e18), in which he highlighted the lack of experimental support for these scenarios, as well as their failure to address the fundamental problems relating to the origin of life:
The prebiotic syntheses that have been investigated experimentally almost always lead to the formation of complex mixtures. Proposed polymer replication schemes are unlikely to succeed except with reasonably pure input monomers. No solution of the origin-of-life problem will be possible until the gap between the two kinds of chemistry is closed. Simplification of product mixtures through the self-organization of organic reaction sequences, whether cyclic or not, would help enormously, as would the discovery of very simple replicating polymers. However, solutions offered by supporters of geneticist or metabolist scenarios that are dependent on “if pigs could fly” hypothetical chemistry are unlikely to help.
A more recent article entitled, Lack of evolvability in self-sustaining autocatalytic networks: A constraint on the metabolism-first path to the origin of life by Vera Vasasa, Eors Szathmary and Mauro Santos (PNAS January 4, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0912628107) highlights an even more fundamental problem with the “metabolism-first” scenario: proto-metabolic systems would have been incapable of undergoing Darwinian evolution. The authors write:
A basic property of life is its capacity to experience Darwinian
evolution. The replicator concept is at the core of genetics-?rst
theories of the origin of life, which suggest that self-replicating
oligonucleotides or their similar ancestors may have been the ?rst
“living” systems and may have led to the evolution of an RNA world. But problems with the nonenzymatic synthesis of biopolymers and the origin of template replication have spurred the alternative metabolism-?rst scenario, where self-reproducing and evolving proto-metabolic networks are assumed to have predated self-replicating genes…. [W]e demonstrate here that replication of compositional information [in the metabolism-?rst scenario – VJT] is so inaccurate that ?tter compositional genomes cannot be maintained by selection and, therefore, the system lacks evolvability… [W]e conclude that this fundamental limitation of ensemble replicators cautions against metabolism-?rst theories of the origin of life, although ancient metabolic systems could have provided a stable habitat within which polymer replicators later evolved…
We think that the real question is that of the organization of chemical networks. If (and what a big IF) there can be in the same environment distinct, organizationally different, alternative autocatalytic cycles/networks, as imagined for example by Ganti (37) and Wachtershauser (38, 39), then these can also compete with each other and undergo some Darwinian evolution. But, even if such systems exist(-ed), they would in all probability have limited heredity only (cf ref. 34) and thus could not undergo open-ended evolution.
We do not know how the transition to digitally encoded information has happened in the originally inanimate world; that is, we do not know where the RNA world might have come from, but there are strong reasons to believe that it had existed.
(f) Why the improbability of life undercuts Loftus’ Argument from Evil
According to the best scientific information we have, then, the origin of life as a result of unguided processes is extremely improbable – so improbable as to turn Loftus’ argument from senseless tragedies on its head. For even if we allow that the occurrence of senseless tragedies under the “God hypothesis” is highly improbable, we have to grant that at least this hypothesis passes the “origin-of-life” test with flying colors: intelligent beings are certainly capable of generating the specified complexity that characterizes life. But if the evolution of life as a result of unguided processes is even more improbable than the occurrence of senseless tragedies under the “God hypothesis,” then the physicalist version of Loftus’ “no-God” hypothesis will be at a disadvantage, compared with the “God hypothesis.”
Loftus can only recover his advantage if he can formulate an independent argument for the truth of physicalism. There are good reasons for regarding a physicalist account of the human mind as false, however. These are summarized in Dr. David Oderberg’s online article, Concepts, Dualism, and the Human Intellect (article #33 on Oderberg’s “Articles” home page; also in A. Antonietti, A. Corradini, and E.J. Lowe (eds), Psycho-Physical Dualism Today: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefied, 2008: 211-33).
(g) Why the multiverse doesn’t help Loftus explain the emergence of life
There is one other way that Loftus could regain the upper hand in this argument, and that is by arguing that in an infinite multiverse, the origin of life is no longer a difficulty: given enough time, it will inevitably spring up somewhere. This is the solution endorsed by evolutionary biologist Dr. Eugene Koonin, who argues that only the multiverse can transform the origin of life into a reasonably probable event. In a paper entitled, The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life (Biology Direct 2007, 2:15 doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15). Koonin contends that the “RNA world” hypothesis for the origin of life is vanishingly improbable in a single, finite universe, given the traditional laws of physics, so he proposes instead that the RNA world is not only likely, but inevitable, if we accept the cosmological model of eternal inflation. The theory of eternal inflation holds that the universe is constantly giving birth to smaller “bubble” universes within an ever-expanding multiverse. Each bubble universe undergoes its own initial period of inflation. In some versions of the theory, the bubbles go both backwards and forwards in time, allowing the possibility of an infinite past. What’s more, all macroscopic histories permitted by the laws of physics are repeated an infinite number of times in an infinite multiverse, so life would be bound to pop up somewhere, sometime.
However, there’s just one small problem with Dr. Koonin’s theory: according to the latest research by cosmologist Alex Vilenkin (which I discussed above), the universe isn’t eternal. Lisa Grossman explains why in an article in New Scientist (“Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event”, 11 January 2012, issue 2847):
In 2003, a team including Vilenkin and Guth considered what eternal inflation would mean for the Hubble constant, which describes mathematically the expansion of the universe. They found that the equations didn’t work (Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/physrevlett.90.151301). “You can’t construct a space-time with this property,” says Vilenkin. It turns out that the constant has a lower limit that prevents inflation in both time directions. “It can’t possibly be eternal in the past,” says Vilenkin. “There must be some kind of boundary.”
To sum up: not even the multiverse can render the origin of life probable.
Mistake #6. Predation is not senseless, but a necessary fact of life
Male Lion (Panthera leo) and cub eating a Cape Buffalo in Northern Sabi Sand, South Africa. Photo by Luca Galuzzi. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
But I haven’t finished with Loftus’ essay yet. After telling us that things happen “without rhyme nor reason,” he continues:
Life is predatory from the ground up. Creatures eat one another by trapping unsuspecting victims in unusual ways, launching surprise attacks out of the blue, and hunting in packs by overpowering prey with brute force and numbers.
Stop right there, Mr. Loftus! You’re seriously maintaining that predation is something “without rhyme or reason”? It appears you need to read more about food chains. I suggest you have a look at this biology handout, which examines in detail the food chain:
wheat plant -> mouse -> weasel -> hawk.
The daily energy requirements of these organisms are 5.5 kJ, 20 kJ, 80 kJ and 330 kJ respectively. In a typical food chain, an organism uses 90% of the energy it receives for life processes, leaving only 10% to be passed up the chain to the next organism. I’ll leave it to Loftus to figure out how many weasels a hawk must eat to obtain its daily energy requirements, how many mice those weasels must eat to obtain their energy requirements, and how many wheat plants those mice must to obtain their energy requirements. I put it to Loftus that a purely vegetarian world would be a world devoid of most (if not all) sentient life-forms, and that predation, far from being without rhyme or reason, makes excellent ecological sense.
The natural theologian William Paley realized that nature needed some way to keep animal populations in check. As he put it: “Immortality upon this earth is out of the question. Without death there could be no generation, no sexes, no parental relation, i. e. as things are constituted, no animal happiness…. The term then of life in different animals being the same as it is, the question is, what mode of taking it away is the best even for the animal itself.” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVI, p. 473.) Paley then argued that there would be even more animal pain in the world if animals were not killed by predators, because deaths from disease and starvation are slow and lingering: “Is it then to see the world filled with drooping, superannuated, half-starved, helpless, and unhelped animals, that you would alter the present system, of pursuit and prey?” (Natural Theology. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVI, p. 474)
Presumably Loftus will reply that he meant to say that predation is without rhyme or reason, morally speaking, and that God could have made a universe with a different set of laws, in which predation was not necessary. This kind of reasoning exemplifies what I call the Pegasus fallacy: the fallacy of assuming that because we can picture something, it must be possible. I can picture Pegasus – but when I start asking myself detailed questions about how he would fly, my picture breaks down. In short: we simply do not know whether God can build a life-friendly universe with a set of laws allowing all animals (including sentient and sapient ones) to obtain their energy requirements on an ongoing basis, without killing other organisms. Loftus says he can imagine one. Fine, but I would challenge him to specify its physical laws. All we know is that in this universe, sentient life – and sapient life – isn’t possible without at least some predation.
For characterizing predation as senseless, Loftus’ essay grade drops from a F to an F-minus. That’s Mistake Number 6, and still counting.
Mistake #7. Loftus fails to account for the marvel of the human brain
Anatomical subregions of the cerebral cortex. The neocortex is the outer layer of the cerebral hemispheres. It is made up of six layers, labelled I to VI (with VI being the innermost and I being the outermost). The neocortex part of the brain of mammals. A homologous structure also exists in birds. Image (courtesy of Wikipedia) taken from Patrick Hagmann et al. (2008) “Mapping the Structural Core of Human Cerebral Cortex,” PLoS Biology 6(7): e159. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060159.
Sometimes a creature just goes wacko for no reason at all. Humans are not exempt. Sometimes the wiring in our brains goes haywire and we snap.
What Loftus is assuming here is that creatures with human brains are capable of evolving in the first place, given the time available. The fact is, however, that the human brain is an enormously complex thing – it’s orders of magnitude more complex than the most advanced computer ever built, or even the Internet. I put it to Loftus that if intelligent human beings are incapable of creating anything which matches the complexity of the brain, then how much less so is unguided evolution.
Regarding the brain’s complexity, I would refer Loftus to an article by Professor David Deamer, of the Department of Biomolecular Engineering, University of California, entitled Consciousness and Intelligence in Mammals: Complexity thresholds, in the Journal of Cosmology, 2011, Vol. 14. The upshot of Deamer’s calculation is that even if you think that consciousness resides in matter (as Deamer does, and as Loftus certainly does), then the most complex computer ever built by human beings still falls a long way short of the human brain, in terms of its complexity. In fact, it falls dozens of orders of magnitude short.
In the article, Deamer proposes a way to estimate complexity in the mammalian brain using the number of cortical neurons, their synaptic connections and the encephalization quotient. His calculation assumes that the following three (materialistic) postulates hold:
The first postulate is that consciousness will ultimately be understood in terms of ordinary chemical and physical laws…
The second postulate is that consciousness is related to the evolution of anatomical complexity in the nervous system… The second postulate suggests that consciousness can emerge only when a certain level of anatomical complexity has evolved in the brain that is directly related to the number of neurons, the number of synaptic connections between neurons, and the anatomical organization of the brain…
This brings us to the third postulate, that consciousness, intelligence, self-awareness and awareness are graded, and have a threshold that is related to the complexity of nervous systems. I will now propose a quantitative formula that gives a rough estimate of the complexity of nervous systems. Only two variables are required: the number of units in a nervous system, and the number of connections (interactions) each unit has with other units in the system. The formula is simple: C(complexity)=log(N)*log(Z) where N is the number of units and Z is the average number of synaptic inputs to a single neuron.
It is important for the reader to understand that Deamer’s formula for complexity is a logarithmic formula. Thus a system with a complexity of 10 isn’t twice as complex as a system with a complexity of 5, but rather, five orders of magnitude more complex.
Deamer obtained his figures for the human brain from Roth and Dicke’s 2005 article, Evolution of the brain and intelligence (Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9: 250-257). The human brain contains 11,500,000,000 cortical neurons. That’s N in his formula. Log(N) is about 10.1. What about Z, the number of synapses per neuron? Z turns out to be astonishingly high: “Each human cortical neuron has approximately 30,000 synapses per cell.” Thus log(Z) is about 4.5. According to Deamer’s complexity formula, then, the complexity of the human brain is 10.1 x 4.5, or 45.5.
How do the most advanced computers compare with the human brain? Very poorly, if we apply Deamer’s complexity formula:
…[B]ecause of the limitations of computer electronics, it will be virtually impossible to construct a conscious computer in the foreseeable future. Even though the number of transistors (N) in a microprocessor chip now approaches the number of neurons in a mammalian brain, each chip has a Z of 2, that is, its input-output response is directly connected to just two other transistors. This is in contrast to a mammalian neuron, in which function is modulated by thousands of synaptic inputs and output relayed to hundreds of other neurons. According to the quantitative formula described above, the complexity of the human nervous system is log(N)*log(Z)=45.5, while that of a microprocessor with 781 million transistors is 8.9*0.3=2.67, many orders of magnitude less… Interestingly, for the nematode the calculated complexity C=3.2, assuming an average of 20 synapses per neuron, so the functioning nervous system of this simple organism could very well be computationally modeled.
So there you have it. A microprocessor with around 1 billion transistors is in the same mental ballpark as … a worm. Rather an underwhelming result, don’t you think?
“What about the Internet as a whole?” you might ask. The number of transistors (N) in the entire Internet has been estimated at 10^18, so log(N) is 18. log(Z) is log(2) or about 0.3, so C=(18*0.3)=5.4. That’s right: on Deamer’s scale, the complexity of the entire Internet is a miserable 5.4, or 40 orders of magnitude less than that of the human brain, which stands at 45.5.
The reader will recall that Deamer’s formula is a logarithmic one, using logarithms to base 10. What that means is that the human brain is, in reality, 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times more complex than the entire Internet! And that’s based on explicitly materialistic assumptions about consciousness.
To be fair, Deamer does point out that “what the microprocessor lacks in connectivity can potentially be compensated in part by speed, which in the most powerful computers is measured in teraflops compared with the kilohertz activity of neurons.” For argument’s sake, I’m going to apply that figure to the Internet as a whole. 10^12 divided by 10^3 is 10^9, so let’s lop off nine zeroes. That still makes the human brain 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 10^31 times more complex than the entire Internet.
How does this affect Loftus’ Argument from evil? If the best that intelligent human beings can come up with is a system which is dozens of orders of magnitude less complex than the human brain, then it is reasonable to believe that the improbability of senseless suffering under the “God hypothesis” is dwarfed by the much greater improbability of a human brain arising as a result of unguided processes, under the physicalistic version of Loftus’ “no-God” hypthesis. In which case, belief in God is far more reasonable than unbelief.
Loftus may object that given enough time – four billion years – unguided evolution could create structures like the human brain. Here, I would like to ask Loftus a question: does he think that the unguided process of Darwinian evolution builds on complexity at a geometric rate? It is easy to see how human creativity can grow in this way: for instance, Moore’s law tells us that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years – which would mean that it would take (1/log(2))*31, or 103 years, for the Internet to catch up with the human brain. (However, on 13 April 2005, Gordon Moore stated in an interview that the law cannot be sustained indefinitely: “It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.”) But to attribute that kind of growth to an unguided, unintelligent process is simply absurd. Additionally, there is not a scintilla of experimental evidence that complexity in living things can increase at such a rate, through unguided evolution.
But if the rate of growth in complexity as a result of unguided processes is much slower than a geometric rate, then the problem of insufficient time resurfaces: even four billion years will probably not be enough time to build a human brain.
For its failure to explain the complexity of the human brain, Loftus’ essay grade drops from a F-minus to an F-double minus. By my count, that’s Mistake Number 7.
I hope that Loftus will come to realize that his Argument from Evil is badly flawed, and that it makes a lot of unwarranted assumptions.
I hope, too, that the tragedies that occur in this world will not cause him to forget the goodness and beauty that we see all around us. This, too, needs to be explained, and its existence is far more puzzling on a “no-God” hypothesis than the existence of senseless evil is if we accept the reality of God.
I will conclude by wishing John Loftus a Happy New Year.