"no harm, no foul"
Wednesday, August 13, 2003
IMPROBABLE ARGUMENT: I read this in the most recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in a story by Paul Davies. I’m mystified why he thinks this is a good argument, or even an argument at all:

“Many scientists believe that life is not a freakish phenomenon (the odds of life starting by chance, the British cosmologist Fred Hoyle once suggested, are comparable to the odds of a whirlwind’s blowing through a junkyard and assembling a functioning Boeing 747) but instead is written into the laws of nature. ‘The universe must in some sense have known we were coming,’ the physicist Freeman Dyson famously observed.”

To begin with the parenthetical is extremely misleading, because it makes it look like some real argumentative work is being done: that we get from extreme improbability to necessity (“written into the laws of nature”). But there’s no entailment between these two notions in the least. An analogy is helpful here: it is extremely improbable that you, the very person you are, ever got born into existence. Consider not only the odds of your parents’ meeting and having you, but also the odds of the particular sperm cell that ultimately became you meeting up with an egg. And reiterate this process over and over again, to your grandparents having your mom, and your dad’s grandparents having him – and your grandparents’ grandparents having them, etc. etc. In short, it is extremely improbably that you exist at all! Was your existence written into “the laws of nature”? Sorry, no. In fact, you are a “freakish phenomenon.” Sorry again.

The idea behind this argument is that when the numbers get too large, chance ceases to be a plausible explanation. So we need another explanation – and here we invoke God or “intelligent design” (science talk for God) or something like the “anthropomorphic cosmological principle” (science talk for something-I-know-not what). But in fact we don’t need another explanation, we just need chance plus time, and a sufficiently expansive imagination (so that we don’t take the improbable to be the impossible)

And since we’re talking about the very existence of the earth, we’ve got plenty of time. There might have been millions, maybe trillions, maybe more, of botched “attempts” at life (quotes here because no one was attempting to make life), until it so happened that people like us were born and starting running around the earth. Life, it turns out, is just a happy accident – something “incidental” and not “fundamental” to use the terms Daives does later on in the paragraph. Indeed, it strikes me that taking Darwin seriously means not being able to give content to the distinction between what is “incidental” and what is “fundamental” in nature. Saying that human life, or even life itself, is “fundamental” is just a complicated and very misleading way of patting ourselves on the back.

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