Better late than never

| 33 Comments

In 1999 I posted to the Talk Reason website a critical review of Professor Nathan Aviezer’s book In the Beginning [1] and of his article The Anthropic Principle published in the Jewish Action journal [2]. My review was titled The End of the Beginning (see here.) [3]. Soon afterward one of my friends (on his own initiative) sent a copy of that essay to Aviezer and asked him to respond. Professor Aviezer chose to ignore my friend’s request. Of course, Professor Aviezer was under no obligation to respond to critique. In the following years my essay evoked some discussion on the internet, but Professor Aviezer remained silent in regard to my critique. In 2003 my book Unintelligent Design [4] was published, wherein one chapter was a slightly modified and updated version of my essay in question. Professor Aviezer remained unresponsive to my critique. Suddenly, in February 2012, 13 years after my review of his work appeared, Professor Aviezer posted a reply (see torahmusings.com/2012/02/fossils-and-faith ) [5].

See the full text of this post here.

33 Comments

13 years it took him? Even George Costanza only took a day to come up with “jerk store”, and that, while admittedly pathetic, was a better comeback than Aviezer’s.

So once again, a creationist in another field publishes some crap in a book rather than a real journal, mangles the science and when his mistakes are pointed out to him, he not only refuses to admit that he was wrong, but proceeds to denigrate the real scientist who tries to politely correct him. In this case it takes him thirteen years to even acknowledge the criticism, let alone respond and still he cannot seem to understand where he went wrong or to answer any of the valid criticisms. So he hasn’t learned a single thing in all these years and yet he has the nerve to suggest that is his critic hasn’t earned a Nobel Prize his must be wrong!

Can’t these guys ever learn another tune?

After 13 years we still don’t know how “we have unanswered questions in science” == “God is the answer for the unknowns”

Seems to be a big problem, though.

Glen Davidson

That’s the kind of response that is better never than late.

13 years isn’t so bad. Most creationists are still ignoring and/or misrepresenting critiques from 1859.

DS said:

So once again, a creationist in another field publishes some crap in a book rather than a real journal, mangles the science and when his mistakes are pointed out to him, he not only refuses to admit that he was wrong, but proceeds to denigrate the real scientist who tries to politely correct him. In this case it takes him thirteen years to even acknowledge the criticism, let alone respond and still he cannot seem to understand where he went wrong or to answer any of the valid criticisms. So he hasn’t learned a single thing in all these years and yet he has the nerve to suggest that is his critic hasn’t earned a Nobel Prize his must be wrong!

Can’t these guys ever learn another tune?

On the other hand, given as how said creationist, himself, has never earned a Nobel Prize, why should we trust that he is correct?

Nicely done, Mark.

There are a number of interesting misconceptions involving probability that Mark alludes to in his review.

Most folks here are probably aware of the recent shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, CO. One of the “curious” sideline news items was about a woman who was killed in that shooting who had been in a theater in, I believe, Toronto about a year earlier in which there was a similar shooting.

And as the talking heads always do, they brought up the question about the probability that this woman would be at two such events within a year of each other, leading to the conspiracy theory that this event was really about a stalking for purposes of an assassination of this particular individual. (Gag!)

I recently had a person ask me about this; and I told the person to estimate the probability that out of the roughly 7 billion people on this planet, that one of them would experience a double sequence of an event like this one.

This is related to the Lottery Winner Fallacy and I also raised that issue. What is the probability that Mrs. Jones wins the lottery? Now ask the people who pay out the money, what is the probability that they will pay out the money?

Looking at the order of something after the fact, or at a particular individual after the fact, is a common mistake many people make in attempting to calculate probabilities. Why is that particular individual or that particular order significant?

The main question to ask in these cases is whether or not there is anything about the particular properties of the individual that has anything to do with the processes involved in the selection of that particular individual. Is there anything about the markings on a deck of cards that is significant in what falls out of a particular shuffle? Significant for whom? What would be the significance to a dog?

The same goes for the living organisms on this planet. How many different kinds of living organism exist or have existed? How many different forms of living organism have been tried? If so many exist or have existed, what is so special about any particular one? Aren’t atoms and molecules within a narrow temperature window simply sampling everything that is possible?

The sampling is permitted by the heat bath in which they are immersed; and products can be produced in cascades and be shuttled into less energetic environments in which they can survive. Laboratory and industrial process make use of this idea.

Who is to say what is too improbable to exist? We know that matter condenses into literally billions upon billions of combinations and configurations and complexity. Emergent properties occur so rapidly that even the simplest systems have properties vastly different from the properties of their individual constituents. Why do we have to conclude that life is too improbable fall out of those processes?

Who is to say what is too improbable to exist? We know that matter condenses into literally billions upon billions of combinations and configurations and complexity. Emergent properties occur so rapidly that even the simplest systems have properties vastly different from the properties of their individual constituents. Why do we have to conclude that life is too improbable fall out of those processes?

Is there anything to my layman’s understanding that deniers of natural evolution suffer from a mechanistic, reductionist concept of nature?

Whenever I see an anti-evolution argument, I see whether the same argument can be used against reproduction.

It works for this “probability” argument thus:

What is the probability that all of the ancestors of a significant person (such as me, or you, or the Queen of England) would have survived to maturity and met their mate?

First of all, take as an estimate that people in olden days would survive to maturity at about 50%. If you think that that is too low an estimate, you can do the calculation with a higher number (it doesn’t change the result materially), but consider, in the case of royal lineages that life could be rather dangerous, and we can always just consider the survival rate starting from zygote rather than birth.

Then, make an estimate on the number of ancestors that a person has had. In general, the number of ancestors doubles per generation as you go back, but there had to be a lot of intermarriage, so let’s be conservative and fix that at 10 different people per generation, and three generations per century, which means that if we go back to 2000 BC, there would be at least 1200 ancestors who survived.

The probability that all of those ancestors of this special person would have survived to maturity is thus something like (1/2)^1200, or approximately (1/10)^360 - far less than one chance in a googol cubed.

Thus purely naturalistic reproduction, without purposeful intervention, is next to impossible on the basis of probability.

A good argument for Scientific Storkism - or its Big Top variation, Intelligent Delivery (which doesn’t identify the Intelligent Deliverer with The Stork).

Oh dear Prof Aviezer; to quote Churchill when told he should never end a sentence in a preposition: “This is the type of thing up with which I will not put!” Likewise Prof!

nice post

I augmented Mark’s critique related to the origin of life, and posted it to Stones and Bones.

TomS said: The probability that all of those ancestors of this special person would have survived to maturity is thus something like (1/2)^1200, or approximately (1/10)^360 - far less than one chance in a googol cubed.

My counter-argument for statistical shenanigans goes something like 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, etc. In a thousand years you’ve got a trillion ancestors, or else there’s been an incredible amount of incest.

Maybe there weren’t as many detrimental recessive’s in the gene pool 6000 years ago? :p

Rolf said:

Who is to say what is too improbable to exist? We know that matter condenses into literally billions upon billions of combinations and configurations and complexity. Emergent properties occur so rapidly that even the simplest systems have properties vastly different from the properties of their individual constituents. Why do we have to conclude that life is too improbable fall out of those processes?

Is there anything to my layman’s understanding that deniers of natural evolution suffer from a mechanistic, reductionist concept of nature?

Yes; and that is an interesting point.

If you look at a typical ID/creationist’s understanding of physics and chemistry, you would be appalled at just how little they know. Most could not pass 8th grade science.

Their portrayal of physics and chemistry is pretty much what you observe, and as with all their portrayals of science, it is a grotesque distortion of the entire fields of physics and chemistry.

Most could not pass 8th grade science.

Put them on the “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” TV quiz show…

Henry J said:

Most could not pass 8th grade science.

Put them on the “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” TV quiz show…

That is really funny when picturing Duane Gish on that program not shielded by his written and signed-by-both-parties rules of engagement.

The Ikeda/Jefferys approach to the fine-tuning argument is criticized here–

pdf file

There’s also a criticism of Ikeda/Jefferys at this blog–

part 1

Some of the best parts are in the comments.

Part2

I’m not a creationist or ID type myself, but I independently had some of the same criticisms of the Ikeda/Jefferys paper myself.

Doesn’t matter said:

There’s also a criticism of Ikeda/Jefferys at this blog–

part 1

Some of the best parts are in the comments.

Part2

I’m not a creationist or ID type myself, but I independently had some of the same criticisms of the Ikeda/Jefferys paper myself.

Two sources referred to by “Doesn’t matter” commenter (one authored by V. Palonen and two others by Luke Barnes) are overall fine pieces of discourse. However, Palonden’s essay has only a tangential relation to Ikeda-Jefferys’ article. Part 1 of Barnes’ essay discusses some nuances of Ikeda-Jefferys’ article; it aptly clarifies some subtle points in Ikeda-Jefferys’ narrative, but does not really deny the overall validity of their ideas. Part 2 of Barnes’s analysis is rather hypothetical, as Barnes himself admits.

TomS said:

Whenever I see an anti-evolution argument, I see whether the same argument can be used against reproduction.

True.

Your analysis is fine as far as it goes, but I think a simpler response would do the trick just as well:

1. Ask them what their (im)probability boundary is.

2. Take the order of magnitude of that number and multiply it by 1.3. Round up.

3. Roll that number of dice (electronically, if its handier).

4. Point out you just produced an event less probable than their boundary.

There are reasons why I prefer the “anti-reproduction” version, even though it is more complicated:

The argument deals with a “special” result. It can be claimed that it is not open to the “Texas sharpshooter” rebuttal. (For example, the anti-evolution analogy with survival from a firing squad.) In the case of the Queen, it can even be said that the queen is the monarch “by the grace of God” (even if “divine right” is not taken seriously, the coronation ceremony is a religious rite), not just because of “random chance”.

It is part of a pattern whereby anti-evolution arguments are parallel to anti-reproduction arguments. For example, “irreducible complexity” actually was seriously proposed by intelligent and well-informed people in the 18th century as an argument for “preformation” - see this at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irredu[…]Up_to_the_18th_century

Henry J said:

Maybe there weren’t as many detrimental recessive’s in the gene pool 6000 years ago? :p

Heh, all the recessives had to be in the gene pool 6000 years ago, unless the creationists are willing to accept mutation rates far in excess of what biologists suggest are reasonable.

ogremk5 said:

Henry J said:

Maybe there weren’t as many detrimental recessive’s in the gene pool 6000 years ago? :p

Heh, all the recessives had to be in the gene pool 6000 years ago, unless the creationists are willing to accept mutation rates far in excess of what biologists suggest are reasonable.

Just ask them how many ‘kinds’ were on the ark, and what they became afterwards. Byers has profound thoughts on that issue.

Just Bob said:

Just ask them how many ‘kinds’ were on the ark, and what they became afterwards. Byers has profound thoughts on that issue.

Nah, that would be an unkind thing to do…

I find Aviezer unintentionally funny when indeed something came along to “change the perception of the universe in a revolutionary way”, namely inflation theory, or when the chicken-and-egg problem of protein-DNA got its solution that engendered a Nobel prize, namely all RNA (mRNA, tRNA, rRNA) at the translation site of the ribosome.

Depending on how you define “big bang” it was either built on, subsumed, or replaced with inflationary standard cosmology in the 00’s, after observations of dark energy and CMB at high resolution.

If big bang is taken as the expansion or an initial compressed and hot state there is no problem except that inflation transforms the question of the fate of the universe (it expands eternally). If big bang is take as a singularity you get trouble, as inflation can have one, many or as in the simplest case of eternal inflation it doesn’t really matter.

In all these cases, inflationary standard cosmology was “changing perceptions … in a revolutionary way”. No less because it turns out we only observe ~ 4 % of the universe energy content by looking at baryonic (“standard”) matter.

The existence of the RNA world has undergone successful testing ever since it was proposed. Recently, protein fold family phylogenies have been able to resolve the period of the RNA/protein world underlying the established DNA UCA. It turns out that the RNA/protein world is ~ 20 % of a fold clock proxy, the DNA UCA another ~ 20 %, and first after comes diversification into domains. [“The evolution and functional repertoire of translation proteins following the origin of life”, Goldman et al, Bio Dir 2010; and similar works.]

This work in is itself tested by the uncovering of robust doubled LUCA roots, on a trophic level, of autotrophic CO2 metabolism and non-stereosymmetric lipid membrane biosynthesis both by phylometabolic methods. The robustness tests that early cell regulation of metabolism and growth, the latter which would have acted as a parasitic drain on the autocatalytic cores of carbon metabolism, was less evolved as would be expected out of an RNA world and/or chemical evolution. [“The Emergence and Early Evolution of Biological Carbon-Fixation, Braakman et al, PLoS Comp Bio 2012; “Ancestral lipid biosynthesis and early membrane evolution”, Peretó et al, TRENDS in Bio Sci 2004.]

By the way, doesn’t Aviezer know that evolution implies that we will see interlocked system after the intermediate stages have gone? There is no problem of causality there. Instead the constraint of a chicken-and-egg problem helps finding the sets of possible pathway due to the bottlenecking.

The idea that life is implausible, which derives from Monod’s “chance” I assume, doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. It is a handwavy way of stating that a process would have a large phase space and a small volume of success, which could have been revisited often on many planets under long times. That is not a description of an actual stochastic process, which would have a wide distribution.

Treating the process from chemical to biological evolution in a stochastic model such as a Poisson process for abiogenesis “attempts” translates the speed with which life is observed to establish itself here to an easy and or often repeated process with a distribution of high degree of success.

But I would also have to take issue with Perakh’s claim that “unique events have no frequentist interpretation.” As far as I have been taught an exception comes out of stochastic processes, where events can be used to test parameters.

For example, a simplest possible Poisson model of abiogenesis attempts.

Such processes stacks their probability mass early, due to their exponential distribution. A homogeneous Poisson process has P(T > t) = exp(- λt).

This is a testable model.

To simplify we use a normed distribution where observation time t = 1. Since this is a one-sided interval from t = 0, we want to have a set of distributions with at least 0.99 of the probability mass within the interval.

The probability mass is expressed by the cdf (cumulative distribution function). Inserting into the Poisson cdf, we get F(t,λ) = 1 - exp(-t*λ) ≥ 0.99 → t*λ > 4.6.

Now t = 1 corresponds to λ ~ 5. That means the normed waiting time T ~ 0.2. With actual time t* ~ 5 Gy we get actual waiting time T* ~ 1 Gy.

With current understanding we have putative observations of life from ~ 3.8 - 3.5 Gy ago. Earth aggregated ~ 4.5 Gy ago, which means the interval gets close to the required ≤ 1 Gy.

In principle a stationary process means a stationary mechanism in a stationary environment.

This isn’t what happened at the start, since volatiles were collected, temperatures and pressures going down and tectonics started. But since it *looks* stationary it means it was close to stationary in some stochastic sense, even if it was frustrated in actuality. In this sense the process was robust and the environment stable enough.

Further smaller wait time, which could be even smaller if tectonics had allowed observation, means that there were many parallel attempts. Larger wait time considered above means deterministically either fewer attempts over long time for some reason or fewer successful for some other. Both is indicative of deterministic difficulty.

Further as opposed to other situations in statistics there is no inherent problem with having just one data point, though it is lousy as an estimate.

Mark, A question about anthropic claims that I have been thinking about recently is, “Why am I in this Universe, at all?” It is not optimized for me- there are conservative religious fanatics, wars, famines, plauges, etc…

Why can’t I have my personally perfect universe?

It is optimized for you. It is not optimized for being the way that you wish it were. If the universe had been just slightly different, then you wouldn’t have been born.

TomS said:

It is optimized for you. It is not optimized for being the way that you wish it were. If the universe had been just slightly different, then you wouldn’t have been born.

The same is true for every critter. Heck, its true for any complicated atomic structure, living or dead. So, based on this description of ‘optimized,’ its fair to say the universe was optimized for one of Van Gogh’s syphilis virions - because if the universe had been slightly different, it wouldn’t have existed.

My issue with the anthropic claims is that the universe it absolutely not optimized for humans… or life as we know it. There are only miniscule pockets of the universe where we can live.

Just a rough calculation, the volume of our solar system that is habitable to humans is about 29 cubic kilometers. The entire volume of our solar system (not including anything past Pluto) is 8.6X10^29 cubic kilometers.

Yes, I know that you guys are all talking about the various constants of the universe that all for basic physics and chemistry to even occur. However, I would submit (with absolutely no evidence except my own preferences) that life, or something like it, could appear in a variety of conditions. Could non-baryonic life exist? Why not?

With all that in mind though, my point is that we are not in a privilege place, we are not in a universe that is amicable to us, and we are not that special. The vast majority of the universe is nothing… and we can’t live off nothing.

There is a more basic problem with the anthropic principle in that it refers to life as we know it in this universe.

Varying one fundamental “constant” at a time and asserting that the universe could not have produced life (life as we know it) is a bit of a bogus argument. There could be ensembles of “constants” that produce universes in with “life” could exist.

Such universes would have different time scales because the passage of time in those universes would be determined by periodic processes in that universe that become the references against which some sentient being would judge the passage of time. ALL such processes in any universe would be relative, with some proceeding more rapidly or more slowly relative to those in our universe. Life spans in those other universes would be compared to the temporal spans of the complex structures that occur in those universes. Furthermore, the relative temporal spans of various structures in other universes don’t necessarily have to be the same as the relative temporal spans of various structures in our universe. We don’t even know what those structures would be.

We simply don’t know how “matter” in these other universes would condense into increasingly complex systems. We don’t know the energy ranges (temperature ranges) where matter could condense into analogous “soft matter” structures of sufficient complexity to have characteristics analogous to living systems. The periodic table of elements in those universes might be completely different, with different atoms combining in different ways that we can’t imagine in our universe.

The anthropic principle is simply an extension of the argument that a given individual couldn’t possibly exist except for an extremely improbable contingent history in which everything converged in just the right way to produce that particular individual.

There is only a very limited way in which the anthropic principle can be used, and that is in a kind of Bayesian sense that takes into account what we already know about our current universe and the things that exist in it. In this sense, there are “predictions” that can be made on the basis of estimated probabilities that can narrow our searches for the kinds of “specific needles in mountain ranges of needles” as, for example, when searching for the recipe for the origins of life in this universe.

The anthropic principle is at best just the lottery fallacy. Since we do exist, when we observe the universe, the conditional probability that it will be compatible with out existence is “1”.

Could non-baryonic life exist? Why not?

If it weren’t for the velocity of light and similar things probably ensuring that we will never really know anyway, this would be an interesting conundrum with respect to extraterrestrial life.

SETI and the Starship Enterprise and so on are seeking extraterrestrial “intelligence”, but by “intelligence” they actually mean “mutually intelligible communication”. Although that’s defined on a “know it when you see it” basis, if aliens actually say “Greetings, Earthling” or “We will crush you puny Earthlings” or “Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish” or some such thing, it’s pretty unequivocal intelligent communication. Joking aside, communication, especially deliberate, intelligible communication, is potentially hard to miss.

As for LIFE, no life has ever yet been observed by a human being that isn’t recognizably based on the common biochemistry of terrestrial life.

I’m sure we all remember the controversy over arsenic-“based” versus arsenic tolerant bacteria (as I noted at the time, arsenic tolerant extremophiles are a perfectly interesting and useful discovery, even without being arsenic “based”). However, even if every single biochemical locus where everything else has a phosphorous atom had had an arsenic atom, those bacteria would still have been lipid, protein, carbohydrate, and nucleic acid based.

The definition of life with a truly novel biochemistry is an intriguing problem. If we say “self-replicating system” anyone can immediately come up with a bunch of examples that aren’t life in a reasonable sense. But how can we narrow that definition without invoking terrestrial biochemistry? On earth it isn’t a problem.

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This page contains a single entry by Mark Perakh published on July 29, 2012 4:27 PM.

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